Microsoft after Ballmer

The New York Times, commenting on Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s retirement, stated their belief that his replacement should be a catch-up artist, in order to allow Microsoft to somehow “get back in the game”.

I disagree. Playing catch-up is a fool’s game, a form of fighting the last battle.

What Microsoft needs is somebody who can anticipate the future (or at least several likely or desirable futures), and who also has sufficient charisma or cat-herding skills to move the company there in advance of anyone else.

There’s a famous story of Bill Gate’s hedging of bets in the late 80’s. At that point in time it wasn’t clear whether Apple would win out, or PC DOS, or IBM with OS/2, or a variant of UNIX, or Microsoft’s own Windows (which was under development under heavy wraps). Instead of placing all of his money on a single likely winner, he made bets on each of these possibilities, allowing Microsoft to quickly align with any technology that pulled ahead of the pack.

A similar situation is happening today: small mobile devices have subsumed a big portion of the consumer computing market, and there’s a chance that they’ll eventually (with more computing power and better input/output devices) start eating into the business environment. There’s a heavy push from a different quarter to introduce a ubiquitous computing environment; there’s the so-called cloud; there’s the still-massive enterprise market – and then there’s the split in underlying technologies used to power all of these different things.

By placing strategic bets – by embracing competing environments like Android and Linux, and doubling down on Apple OS – even while building the next versions of Windows – Microsoft can ensure that it remains relevant in the future.

This may require cannibalizing the markets for aging but still wildly profitable Microsoft products, combined with the ability to persuade the markets in the interim that this isn’t a silly step.

In short, this is going to be a tough job!