Steve Ballmer has always been nice to me. I can’t say we have much of a relationship, but the half dozen times I have interviewed him have always gone well and he tries to please, which I appreciate. But (there’s always a but, isn’t there?) Ballmer has failed at Microsoft and I believe 2012 will see him replaced as Redmond’s CEO.
During Ballmer’s term Microsoft’s stock has gone nowhere and it lost to Apple its position as America’s most valuable technology company. While the company is wildly profitable and will remain so for years to come, those profits still come, for the most part, from two stalwart products from the 1990s — Windows and Office — both of which will fade as the mobile conversion proceeds.
Very little else has worked for Microsoft. I know, I know there are 50 million xBox game systems out there and hundreds of millions of games have been sold, but how much money did Microsoft actually make on all that hardware? The company would be in a better position today, frankly, had it simply shut down everything but Windows and Office.
Ballmer tried and failed and it is long past being time for him to go. Unfortunately most of the internal candidates who might logically have succeeded him are no longer with the company. And it is my belief that once you leave Microsoft you don’t come back.
Besides, Ballmer probably doesn’t want to give up the job.
But it’s time, Steve. You know it’s time.
Now we’ve reached the part of the show where I tell you who I believe will be the new Microsoft CEO. I could have put it in the headline above but I wanted you to keep an open mind at least this far. Because there’s a cynical cadre of readers who apparently come here mainly to get angry and feel superior and those readers are about to accuse me for the second or third time this week of having jumped the shark.
I think the next CEO of Microsoft will be Eric Schmidt, who happens at the moment to be chairman of Google.
For something this crazy to happen it has to work for both parties and I think this does, so please read to the end.
Schmidt is, at this point, a billionaire drone at Google. Larry Page is back firmly in control and there is little for Schmidt to do but go around the world hinting at new products. Not only that, Page is pointedly dismantling the organization Schmidt built, seeing it as inefficient.
It is no longer Eric Schmidt’s Google.
I’ll get back to Schmidt’s motivations in a moment, but now let’s look at why Microsoft might do this. It’s a tactical move for one thing and Microsoft thrills to tactical moves. Google has been identified as Microsoft’s top enemy and Schmidt certainly knows Google. Apple is a big enemy, too, and Schmidt knows that company from his several years on the Apple board.
If Microsoft wants to send Wall Street and the technology market a clear signal that something has changed, hiring Eric Schmidt would be that signal.
And for his part I think Schmidt would do pretty well at Microsoft. It’s a very techie company that presently lacks technical leadership and is adrift as a result. It lacks the cultural problems Schmidt faced at Novell and the cult-of-personality problems at Google, where Schmidt had too much of a free hand with the result being the dysfunctional culture Larry Page is currently dismantling.
More than anything else, though, sometimes just firing the manager can turn a team around. In this instance I am referring to Ballmer.
Now back to why Schmidt would want to even do it. For one thing he can prove Larry Page was wrong. For another — and this is vitally important — this is about the only way Schmidt can sell his Google stock, which may be not far from a historic high. As CEO of Microsoft there’s no onus against selling that stock or putting it in a foundation which then sells it, or maybe even selling it to Microsoft.
Call me crazy but that’s how I see it. Who would you choose?