Microsoft’s Ballmer to Apple: It’s on (again)

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

One thing Apple fans know about Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer – he once mock-stomped an employee’s iPhone to oblivion at a company meeting. Ballmer also stated that he wouldn’t let his kids use an iPod (or any Apple or Google offering for that matter).

Now, with a story in a national glossy magazine excoriating his management style, claiming Microsoft has lost its ability to innovate and coming on the heels of a huge ($6.3 billion!) write-off of its Internet ad business, Ballmer remains …  well, Ballmer.

In an interview with CRN at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference this week, Ballmer said Microsoft will take the battle to Apple again, this time with Surface tablet devices that the software company will design and build.

“We are trying to make absolutely clear we are not going to leave any space uncovered to Apple,”  Ballmer said, after speaking to an estimated 16,000 Microsoft partners at the Toronto event.

Ballmer told CRN’s Steven Burke:

“We have our advantages in productivity. We have our advantages in terms of enterprise management, manageability. We have got our advantages in terms of when you plug into server infrastructure in the enterprise.

“But we are not going to let any piece of this [go uncontested to Apple]. Not the consumer cloud. Not hardware software innovation. We are not leaving any of that to Apple by itself. Not going to happen. Not on our watch.”

Kurt Eichenwald, author of the aforementioned Vanity Fair piece, appeared on American Public Media’s Marketplace, saying:

“One of the things I mention in the article is that the iPhone right now, something that didn’t exist five years ago, has more in sales than all of Microsoft combined.”

To be sure, Microsoft lags both Apple and Android badly in smartphones, but even some Microsoft critics say it’s got a better phone OS story now — the question is whether that’s too little too late. Microsoft has entered other markets late and clumsily but eventually dominated them. Does anyone remember the Netscape Navigator browser which Microsoft buried with Internet Explorer?

Then again, Microsoft often drops the ball once it gains dominance — and Internet Explorer is a good example here, too.

Eichenwald has been all over the place touting his story, appearing on CBS Sunday Morning two days ago and on PBS with Charlie Rose Monday night.

MSFT Chart

MSFT data by YCharts

That Microsoft can be slow and clumsy in its development is not new. Nor is the fact that Microsoft has had a rough go of it for the past few years. It’s stock price has languished compared to Google, Apple, and IBM (see chart.) But it remains a profitable, if not-super-inspiring, company. Ballmer has had prominent investors call for his head on a plate. But even some Microsoft critics say the company may be on the mend with Surface, a more credible phone OS and a better story around its Azure cloud.

All this negative press may lag Microsoft’s reality, a belief that led some contrarians to think now’s the time to buy Microsoft’s stock. 

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