Vid Steve Ballmer's greatest regret from his time at Microsoft is that he flubbed his company's attempts at smartphones and mobile computing. That's what he said on Tuesday during his first public appearance since stepping down as CEO of the software goliath.
Speaking before an audience of graduate students, business owners, and the media at Oxford University's Saïd Business School, Ballmer said Microsoft "would have a stronger position in the phone market today if I could redo, for example, the last ten years."
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"The thing I regret is that we didn't put the hardware and software together soon enough," he said. "It was almost magical the way the PC came about with an operating system from us and hardware from IBM. There was a little bit of magic, too, for Android and Samsung coming together. But if you really want to bring a vision to market, it is helpful to be able to conceive and deliver the hardware and software."
That's not to say that Microsoft has decided to follow Apple's model, in Ballmer's view. The former Microsoft man acknowledged that Apple products are perceived as "cool" today – "quote, unquote," he quipped – but said that the brand Apple has built for itself wouldn't be Microsoft's brand.
"What I would hope Microsoft will mean is affordable, empowering technology for all," Ballmer said. "It doesn't have to be as 'fashionable' as that, but it's got to be very empowering and very affordable and take all forms."
Not so 'soft' anymore
By "all forms," Ballmer means that the Microsoft of the future will continue to move beyond its roots as a tools and software vendor.
"The name of the company is Microsoft. Micro ... soft. It was a fundamental part of the founding principles: we were a software company," Ballmer said. "And yet, Xbox, then Surface, and now the phone, essentially we have a profile that will wind up being far more mixed in the future."
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Because of that ongoing shift, the ex-CEO said, the decision to acquire Nokia – a deal that is still pending regulatory approval in some markets – was the single biggest strategic choice he made during his tenure as chief exec.
Ballmer, a 34-year veteran of Microsoft before his retirement this year, said Microsoft has a good chance at succeeding in its transition to a "devices and services" company because it has already accomplished more than most technology companies ever do.
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"Most tech companies fail. They are zero-trick ponies. They never do anything well. They go away. You're pretty genius in our business if you're a one-trick pony. And even companies that get to be public companies generally have one trick," he opined.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has performed two "tricks" so far – or two and a half, to hear Ballmer tell it.
"One trick is we really invented the modern PC with Windows and Office. And then the second thing we did was really bring microprocessor technology in to the data center," Ballmer said, adding that he'd like credit for "half a trick" with Xbox.
And Microsoft's next trick? Despite owning a four per cent stake in the company worth some $12.8bn, and despite retaining his seat on Redmond's board, the second of the three CEOs in Microsoft's history says that's now in the hands of new top exec Satya Nadella and his leadership team.
"As a board member, you're a board member. You govern; you don't lead. I speak about our company today historically because I'm a former CEO. The company and its plans and where it's going – we've got a great team that will speak on behalf of the company," Ballmer said. He added, "But I'm a very interested board member." ®