November 03, 2011, 12:00 AM — I realize no one at Microsoft is going to remember that I blamed Steve Ballmer for missing the boat on tablets. And smartphones. And clouds. I'm sure Ballmer has the same crew of junior assistants most top execs hire to hold grudges for them, but even at Microsoft the flow of both deserved and undeserved criticism is too heavy to keep track of most individual sources.
My blame-smearing at the time wasn't specific to the issue of tablets. It was more of a global condemnation of Ballmer's time on the big throne of the Evil Empire and how much prestige and market-leading power it lost during his watch. Dropping irreparably behind iOS and Android in smartphones caused it to lose position in a market it had already established. Failing to enter the tablet market in a serious way until long after Apple had its leadership sewn up caused it to lose a huge potential market as well. Being so late to the tablet market it seemed to have given it up completely relative loss in its ability to lead markets as it dropped irreparably behind in the market and seemed to have given up on tablets completely.
I and most other people blamed Ballmer for both decisions. It turns out, according to a very detailed analysis and insider tell-all from CNET writer Jay Greene, that Ballmer isn't the one who blew the call on tablets.
According to Greene's reporting, in early 2010, Ballmer was caught between funding two radically different choices. He could have backed Courier – an innovative dual-screen, touch-enabled tablet that ran a Windows variant that might not be completely compatible with other Windows products, but would have been a real alternative to the iPad relatively early in the game. It was also being developed by J Allard, the perpetually forward-thinking Microsoft exec who, among other things, made the Xbox a success.
Ballmer's other choice was a boring, safe product plan that followed the Windows-is-the-world approach that let Microsoft dominate the world of computing – until the customers doing the computing decided it was easier to carry an iPhone or iPad than a Windows box.
Unable to choose, he did something really successful CEOs rarely do: He decided to forego his own judgment and ask the advice of a predecessor whose perspective was reinforced by years of incomparable success driven by monmaniacal dedication to one product and who hadn't made the leap to understanding that customers thought tablets were great even if he didn't.