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Microsoft A.B. (After Bill)

Microsoft has a huge problem: Steve Ballmer. He's shrewd and intelligent, but he's so obsessed with the past that he's bound to miss the train to future opportunities.

The Economist's Ludwig Siegele opens up one of the most important questions for the next 10 years of software: What happens to Microsoft after Bill Gates leaves?

In Ray Ozzie's (and, perhaps, Microsoft's) view, Microsoft's new goal is the same as the old goal: dominate everything. But the battle has shifted to the "cloud" now. Complicating the matter further, Microsoft no longer has a technical leader, one who combines vision, tenacity, and introspection. Instead it has an aggressive, sometimes bumbling bloodhound of a CEO, Steve Ballmer.

Can Mr. Protect-My-Desktop-Monopoly-By-Whatever-Means-Necessary really push Microsoft to the future? Can Ballmer deliver on this goal? According to Siegele, Microsoft's goal: to become the dominant force in the forthcoming era of cloud computing--or, to refresh Microsoft's original mission: "to supply services to every desk, to every home and to every hand."

To understand what that means, and the difficulties it poses Microsoft, start with the idea that computing is undergoing one of its great periodic shifts....Now communications is catching up with hardware and software and, thanks to cheap broadband and wireless access, the industry is witnessing a pull back to the middle. This is leading much computing to migrate back into huge data centers. Networks of these computing plants form "computing clouds"--vast, amorphous, delocalized nebulae of processing power and storage.

This is a huge opportunity for Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, and others. But only Microsoft brings a massive ball-and-chain to the party called the Windows desktop business, which accounts for the vast majority of its revenue and pervades its company culture. The very thing that makes Microsoft so successful may well ensure that it will play a bit part in the future of computing.

Ballmer doesn't help. The future is a loose federation of open standards and protocols--a game that Ballmer simply doesn't understand. His continued aggressive antipathy toward open source is but one indicator that in a world brimming with clues, he has yet to discover a single one.

In his article, Siegele quotes from long-time Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley's book, Microsoft 2.0. She is already pining for the days of Gates, according to Siegele:

"If Microsoft were still the company it was 10 or 20 years ago, with the simultaneously ruthless and cautious Gates at the helm," she would have "no qualms" about predicting its success.

But with bull-in-a-china-shop Ballmer in control? She's not so sanguine.

Gates tease

Perhaps Microsoft's Vista failure--companies like Intel are snubbing it to stick with XP while developers are mostly taking a pass on Vista--will clear the way for Microsoft to care about the cloud. Yes, it "cares" today but it has too much at stake in preserving the status quo. It has not yet learned how to eat its young.

And then there's Ballmer. There is no doubt he is a shrewd, intelligent man. There's also little doubt that he's so obsessed with trying to succeed how he always has that he's bound to miss the train to future opportunities.

Microsoft needs a new future. For that, it needs new leadership. Ballmer has to go.

See also:

Special Report: For Bill Gates, the next phase begins