Windows Phone 7: Defining moment for Ballmer?

For Microsoft, the new OS is a shot at a bigger chunk of the hot smartphone market. For CEO Steve Ballmer, it could be vindication that he's still the right man for the job.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
4 min read

Microsoft has a lot riding on the success of the upcoming Windows Phone 7. The same could also be said of CEO Steve Ballmer.

Consider, for instance, the recent judgment rendered by Microsoft's board, which has signaled some dissatisfaction with Ballmer's job performance by cutting his bonus for 2010. One key reason: Microsoft's aborted mobile foray with the short-lived Kin.

Microsoft and CEO Steve Ballmer are counting on Windows Phone 7 to drive growth in the mobile market.
Microsoft and CEO Steve Ballmer are counting on Windows Phone 7 to drive growth in the mobile market. Microsoft

Other reasons Ballmer didn't get his full potential bonus, according to the board, included the overall loss of market share in the mobile phone business, along with the need for Microsoft to "pursue innovations" in the area of "new form factors"--likely a veiled reference to tablet PCs, a realm now dominated by the Apple iPad and in which Microsoft has so far failed to make a significant dent.

Consider, too, the venting by some Microsoft employees on the site Glassdoor.com, which publishes job listings, salary information, and company reviews, and also gives workers a forum to either praise or put down their employers and CEOs.

On a five-point scale, Microsoft as a company scores a 3.5 average in current Glassdoor rankings, with many workers applauding the company for its compensation and benefits, work/life balance, and employee morale. But Ballmer didn't fare as well among the rank and file, or at least the approximately 1,100 (out of an overall workforce of 90,000) who offered feedback via Glassdoor.

As of this week, the results on Glassdoor for Ballmer are a sobering 50 percent approval rating. By comparison, Google CEO Eric Schmidt gets a 96 percent approval rating, Apple CEO Steve Jobs garners 97 percent, and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison totes up 78 percent.

Among some of the comments made about Ballmer on Glassdoor, one person wrote that the company "lacks a CEO with compelling vision" and that it needs to "install a CEO that is visionary and can address major, but potentially disruptive, opportunities in mobile and on the web." Another wrote that "every year, SteveB's priorities for the company change. From an employee's perspective, senior MSFT leadership appears to just be reacting to industry trends, without any role in defining them."

When asked for a response to Glassdoor's ratings, a Microsoft spokesperson said in an e-mail to CNET simply that the company is not commenting on this issue.

The launch of Windows Phone 7 on Monday at a New York City event will give Ballmer and Microsoft another shot at the mobile vision thing. The company is of course facing intense competition from the iPhone and the deluge of Android phones that have been flooding the market. But speaking at a business conference in Madrid today, Ballmer said he was confident the new mobile OS would help Microsoft grab more share from its competition.

"I think our products will stand out compared to any others. We would not be launching the product if we did not feel good about its chances to do well," Ballmer said at the conference, according to AFP.

Casting some cold water on Ballmer's optimism is market research firm Gartner. In a report released last month, Gartner forecast that Microsoft's share of the mobile market would rise from 4.7 percent this year to 5.2 percent next year--but then drop to 3.9 percent by 2014. At that point, Gartner believes Windows Phone will be in sixth place for market share behind Nokia's MeeGo in a landscape dominated by Symbian and Android phones.

Microsoft is also trying to keep interest alive in the tablet department, the other key concern raised by the board reviewing Ballmer's bonus. Speaking in London this week, Ballmer said that Window 7 tablets would be ready for the holidays, echoing comments he made over the summer. But as it ramps up its Windows-based tablets, the company will bump up against the iPad juggernaut, which shows no signs of slowing down.

Beyond Ballmer's individual job performance, one reason why Microsoft may be slow to hit new markets at the right time could be what some see as a management-heavy structure. Many of the comments on Glassdoor say that Microsoft's layers of management have been preventing it from acting fast enough in today's competitive marketplace.

One employee wrote that "there are too many layer of managers, and resources are wasted in political fight instead of innovation," while another cited "lots of red tape and politics to get anything done." And a third summed it up by saying, "This company needs to move quickly or we are going to become like IBM. Right now it's like moving the Titanic. We need to be more agile, more hungry, and get strategic. Tomorrow's not going to be the same as yesterday."

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Ballmer himself acknowledged that since Microsoft's last significant release in its mobile business, "the industry has moved, the technology has moved, the hardware has moved." He told the Journal that the company has to "move forward, not shoot for yesterday."

• Tune in to CNET's live coverage of the Windows Phone 7 event Monday starting at 6:30 a.m. PDT.