Ballmer turns to geeks to save his own butt

Embattled Microsoft CEO reportedly wants product chiefs with engineering chops

Under pressure from increasingly impatient board members and investors -- and probably still smarting because he left bonus money on the table last year -- Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer is prepared to let geeks run the product show, Bloomberg reports. Ballmer "plans to extend a management shake-up aimed at adding senior product executives with an engineering background," Bloomberg's Dina Bass writes, citing as her sources "two people with knowledge of the decision." (Also see: Ballmer fires Microsoft head of servers, clouds; leaves his own head alone) The changes, which could be announced this month, would come soon after Ballmer unceremoniously canned Server & Tools Business division head Bob Muglia, a 23-year veteran of the Redmond wars. It appears to be slowly dawning on Ballmer that a tech company might be well-served by having people with, you know, tech expertise making decisions about, what do you call them, tech products! And that's why he's bringing down the big bucks. Not that there isn't a place at Microsoft for a sales guy with a penchant for clownish, over-the-top public behavior. Or incandescent fits of rage. The question is whether that place is the corner office, and Ballmer assuredly knows that unless he can make Microsoft competitive with Google and Apple in the mobile computing and web services markets -- not to mention increase shareholder value by reigniting the company's moribund stock -- he could end up being one of the wealthiest, temporarily unemployed guys in the world. And who would wish that fate on anyone? Don't think it can't happen, either. A September regulatory filing revealed that Microsoft's board of directors is openly questioning his leadership because the company effectively dropped out of the mobile phone market when its Kin handheld device bombed. How bad was the Kin? Even this target market thought it was too primitive. Microsoft recently has tried to get back in the game with the Windows Phone 7 smartphone, which has gotten some good reviews. Sales, however, might be another matter. Kin's failure, and Microsoft's lagging performance in smartphone software, cost Ballmer half of his target bonus last year. He recently has been seen prowling the aisles of a Redmond Walmart after midnight, looking for fantastic deals on hand towels and developers, developers, developers! If Ballmer can't revive the company's fortunes in emerging markets such as cloud computing, smartphones and tablets, he soon could be greeting Walmart customers. But at least he'll have the nicest shoes of all the associates.

Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.

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