Is it Ballmer's fault?

Bill Gates understood and catered to developers. Steve Ballmer does not. (But Google does.) Ballmer needs to learn to speak to developers or risks ruining the house that Gates built.

Microsoft is in significant disarray, fettered by its destkop dominance as the world goes mobile. Would this have happened anyway, or is Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to blame?

Developers! Developers. Developers? Developers!?!?

Ballmer, after all, knows how to sing to developers, but he doesn't really speak their language. Former Microsoft CEO and co-founder Bill Gates did. Now, more than ever, Microsoft needs to get in front of developers but finds itself playing catch-up.

Gates announced his resignation back in 2006 and formally discarded his full-time Microsoft duties in 2008. But it has been a long time since Gates' hand was full time on the steering wheel.

That's a problem for the world's largest software company. It was Gates who saw the threat (and opportunity) the Internet posed for Microsoft--drafting his excellent "The Internet Tidal Wave" (PDF) memo in 1995--and alerting his troops to an array of threats that saved Microsoft from ruin...while helping it to ruin many others on its path to billions in profits.

Gates oversaw Microsoft's early, largely successful forays onto the Web. Ballmer has shepherded Microsoft to vanishing mobile market share (now just 7.9 percent of the market), a hesitant tiptoe into software as a service, and a general sense of retreat in emerging markets.

Hence, while former Microsoftie Don Dodge talks up his new employer, Google, with its food perks and 401(k), it's really the company's vision that has him jazzed:

Google has made three big bets on the future of computing; Chrome (browser), Google Apps (cloud), and Android (mobile). The trends are pretty clear. All the exciting new applications are running in the browser, with application code in the cloud, and the cell phone as the platform....2010 will be the year that enterprises of all sizes start their transition to Gmail and Google Apps, and take their first steps towards the vision of the future.

Dodge couldn't sell this sort of vision at Microsoft.

Microsoft has been playing catch-up for many years, but at least did so successfully under Gates. With Ballmer, there's a sense that Microsoft is always a half-decade too late on critical initiatives like search, open source, and mobile.

So is the problem Ballmer, or is Microsoft simply doomed, blinded by its own success with personal computers--a blindness that no CEO could overcome?

I hate to ascribe so much importance to any one person, but just as Steve Jobs is the soul of Apple and its revolutionary leader, so, too, was Gates the heart and mind of Microsoft. He understood developers, and they rewarded his belief in them by making Microsoft the world's largest software company.

Microsoft is the poorer for Gates' departure.

Even as I type this, Google keeps moving into the future while gouging Microsoft's past. TechCrunch is reporting that Google is acquiring DocVerse, which enables people to collaborate on Microsoft's Office documents. Microsoft is under siege.

This is just the beginning.

Developers are coding for Google projects, Twitter, and other new-style Web applications. Morgan Stanley is predicting the mobile market will be twice the size of the "desktop" market. Will Google someday dwarf Microsoft in size and influence?

Unless Ballmer can discover his recessive developer gene, the answer my well be yes.

Update at 2:10 AM Pacific on Tuesday: Newsweek predicts the ouster of Ballmer in 2010, but ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley cautions "not so fast."

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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