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Ballmer's big mouth is good for Microsoft

Steve Ballmer likes to mix it up in interviews. And although some don't like how forthright he is, Don Reisinger contends that it's hard to argue with what he says.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer opened his big mouth again. He decided to dish on Apple, saying the company competes by providing little more than a logo and a higher price.

"Apple gained about one point, but now I think the tide has really turned back the other direction," Ballmer said in a keynote speech at Media Summit 2009, discussing Apple's recent gains in the market. "The economy is helpful. Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment...to get a logo on it? I think that's a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be."

Apple fans came out in force, responding to Ballmer's latest bullet. Commenters tried to correct Ballmer, saying, "That extra $500 gets you an OS that doesn't get viruses and allows you to run for the life of the computer without having to wipe the computer and reinstall." Others were more reactionary. Said one, "Ballmer is an idiot...period."

But is he? Sure, he opens his mouth when most competitors wouldn't, but it's hard to argue with his track record as a CEO. Over the past four years alone, he has presided over a staggering increase in Microsoft's bottom line. During that period, profits at the company have risen from $12 billion in 2005 to more than $17 billion for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008. Revenue has nearly doubled in that time. And shareholder value--a measure of a company's ability to increase its free cash flow over time--has increased since he became CEO of Microsoft.

Ballmer gets treated harshly in part because he himself is blunt. But how can anyone make the case that he's a bad CEO? Even though the company is having trouble competing online and though Vista was a major misstep, if we look at the bottom line, those issues seem to have had very little impact on Microsoft's success.

He enjoys taking Apple to task by making everyone realize that in 2008, approximately 300 million PCs were shipped, and that only about 10 million of those were Macs.

He is not, however, above admitting when his own company has made mistakes. "Despite the fact you could say we are not where we'd like to be, and we could have gotten started a little bit (earlier), we are very committed," Ballmer said in a discussion about Microsoft's place in the online market with Guy Kawasaki at the Mix Conference in 2008.

Discussing Vista last year at Gartner's Symposium/ITxpo conference, Ballmer said that "Windows 7 will be Vista, but a lot better," indicating his understanding of the situation: Vista was an issue from the very beginning.

While fielding a question from the audience at the CIO Conference earlier this month, Ballmer was forthright in his discussion on Windows Mobile, saying that his company has "a significant release coming this year, (but) not the full release we wanted to have..."

How many times have we wished that a CEO would speak frankly when something went wrong at a company? How many times have we wished that an executive could give us something a bit more concrete than marketing speak? Judging by Microsoft's success, maybe they should start.

Does Steve Ballmer have a big mouth? I'm sure Bill Gates has cringed at what his buddy said more than once. But he says what he believes (or at least appears to). And he's only telling us what we already know: Windows Mobile is in desperate need of a meaningful update; Windows Vista is a bloated mess that Microsoft can't salvage; Mac OS X isn't a credible threat to Windows; Apple charges much more for its computers than most of us think necessary; and Microsoft is a successful company.

What's so bad about any of that? It might hurt the feelings of Apple (and Linux) fans, but it's the truth.

Check out Don's Digital Home podcast, Twitter stream, and FriendFeed.