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Ballmer on search: 'I don't like not being No. 1'

In his Silicon Valley chat, the Microsoft chief executive says it's going to be a long haul in the search battle with Google. He also talks phones and Windows.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said his company may be the only one with a chance to rival Google in search over the long term, but acknowledged that it will take several more years and a whole lot of money.

Steve Ballmer
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

"It's going to take us a while," he said, during a speech at the Churchill Club. "We've got a lot to do."

Venture Capitalist Ann Winblad, who was moderating the talk with Ballmer, noted that when Ballmer addressed the club in 2006, he said search was a five-year battle.

"It's a five-year task," he said, with a smile. "It's a long-term task."

To succeed, he said, the company will have to find a way to fundamentally change the experience and the economics of search. "You have to redefine the category," Ballmer said. "We've taken some steps in that direction."

"You don't really brute force your way into any market," he said. (I looked around, but I didn't see anyone choke on their water over that one.)

On the antitrust front, Winblad asked Ballmer if he had any advice for Google's executives. "I'd probably keep that advice to myself," he said.

He also stayed silent on several other topics, such as a question about "Red Dog," the company's rumored competitor to Amazon's EC2. He did promise Microsoft would have much more to say in six weeks at the company's Professional Developer Conference in Los Angeles.

He did say that Red Dog and other cloud computing efforts are key to winning the battle for developers, particularly Web developers.

"I think at the end of the day, cloud computing will be dictated by the interests and the degree to which you capture the imagination of developers," Ballmer said.

On other topics:

The Seinfeld-Gates ads: "It was a two-week campaign but man did it get people talking for more than two weeks," Ballmer said.

The phone business: In five to ten years, Ballmer said all of the one billion cell phones sold a year will be smartphones. He said that means that software and hardware are likely to separate, at least in the mass market. He said of the players in that area--Windows Mobile, Symbian, Linux mobile and Android--Microsoft's is the most mature.

He said RIM and Apple may have nice and profitable businesses, but they are likely to be niches. "We're kind of battling for the big part," Ballmer said. "That doesn't mean Apple and RIM wont make lots of money."

On Windows-related headaches: "Every version of Windows statistically... gets better than versions before," he said. "I'm not saying that we are there yet."

With Vista, Ballmer said Microsoft made a choice, right or wrong, to change some things that caused compatibility issues in the name of security.

He said that it would be easier if Microsoft was trying to build a fixed-function device rather than an open, general-purpose platform. Still, he said, the goal is a system that everyone likes. "Every day we've got 5,000 people...that come to work just focused on that single challenge."