THE BLOG
08/29/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2013

Steve Ballmer: A Legend

I asked Bill Gates at Abu Dhabi Media Summit, last year, if he'd ever come back to run Microsoft to re-define its path. He answered: he already puts 15 percent of his time advising Microsoft and will continue to do so. And that he is fully committed to his philanthropic cause -- a cause bigger than Microsoft.

My question and Bill's answer referenced Steve Jobs, not Ballmer. I didn't ask Bill Gates if a leadership change was needed. As I deeply believed that Steve Ballmer was the best professional CEO available to run Microsoft. Bill Gates also believed so. Until, of course, Ballmer's sudden retirement.

A balanced view of Steve Ballmer's performance can only be seen if we compare Steve Ballmer's performance to that of legendary CEOs like Jack Welsh, former GE CEO. Ballmer leaves Welsh in dust if you look at the core metric of a public company's CEO performance: rate of growth in profitability.

Steve Ballmer was not Microsoft's co-founder. He was not an inventor. He was the first business hire at Microsoft and a trusted friend of Bill Gates.

Ballmer's story is a story of friendship and loyalty (to Bill and Microsoft) that will be told and researched in management literature for decades. In a world where most co-founders can't work with each other past fund raising, Steve Ballmer, an employee, remained Bill's confidant and loyalist for two decades and eventually accepted the responsibility of running the company when he was asked.

Bill Gates chose Steve Ballmer. Bill Gates led the vision of Microsoft until he retired in August 2008, roughly five years ago. At that time Steve Ballmer remained the best choice for the CEO position. At D6, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer appeared in a joint interview few months ahead of Bill's retirement, to make just that point.

The iPhone and iPad revolution and the rise of Apple in the past five years is not Microsoft's failure.

The greatest achievement of Steve Ballmer with respect to competing with iPhone was not to copy it, but to re-think Windows and eventually release the world's first and only cross-device and unified operating system, Windows 8. Mighty Apple and King Google are light years away from unifying their mobile and desktop operating systems.

Google did what Microsoft chose not to: copied the iPhone. After failing to copy BlackBerry in a timely fashion, Google decided to copy the iPhone. Late Steve Jobs called Android a "stolen product" and vowed to "right the wrong".

In 2012, 87 percent of Google's $50 billion in revenues came from advertising. Steve Ballmer clearly saw the online advertising opportunity and went after it in a very elegant and strategic way. Microsoft launched Bing in 2009 after Yahoo's founder failed to accept Ballmer's acquisition offer. Bing's elegant design and aggressive mass advertising ushered a new era of tech advertising. Bing forced Google to up its game in design and make its search results page less cluttered. Today, Bing is the second largest search platform.

Ballmer saw the social revolution coming. In 2007, Microsoft pumped $250 million in Facebook making Facebook worth $15 billion, at that time. Microsoft Advertising helped sell ads for Facebook in the early days of the partnership and continues to help Facebook in their advertising business. Facebook is deeply integrated with Bing Maps, Bing Translation and Bing Search.

Ballmer seized the opportunity to buy Skype, beautifully integrated the acquisition and killed MSN Messenger.

Under Ballmer's leadership Microsoft built one of the most robust cloud infrastructures in the world. Windows Azure out competes Amazon Web Services (AWS) in performance. My company prefers AWS because of its cost effectiveness, not performance. If price and costs are equal, we'd move everything to Windows Azure today.

In the past year, Microsoft has brought discontinuous change and radical innovation to most of its products and organization.

Microsoft killed Hotmail and launched Outlook.com. Outlook.com is the best free email service available to consumers that out competes Apple's iCloud in performance and out competes Gmail in simplicity and clean design.

The all new Office 2013 is an example of Microsoft's engineering excellence that all of its rivals in productivity space can't match. It offers a seamless desktop and cloud experience that is unmatched by rivals and non-rivals in all software categories.

Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud storage service is killing it in consumer and enterprise markets. Microsoft's data synchronization technology behind SkyDrive puts it light years ahead of Google Drive and other rivals in the space.

Microsoft revamped its CRM Dynamics product recently. Although not as known or popular, CRM Dynamics is far superior a product to Salesforce.com in every respect. Last year, my company moved its sales organization to CRM Dynamics from Salesforce.com.

Microsoft's Xbox business makes it the only American company leading the charge in home entertainment space, globally. I can go on and on and talk about the enterprise business, Windows Server, Visual Studio and developer tools.

Just this summer, Steve Ballmer went ahead and radically changed the entire organization of Microsoft and set the "One Microsoft" strategy.

In the wake of a massive industrial transformation, there is no other technology company in the history that has brought radical innovation and discontinuous change to itself in a way Microsoft has successfully done. Marc Andreessen, who fought the first Internet war with Microsoft, said the same for Windows 8, last year at New York Times Dealbook Conference.

Today, Microsoft is ready to compete in a variety of ICT markets no other single American company is able to for the next decade or two. Only a tenacious and bold CEO, like Ballmer, could have achieved this.

On a personal level, Steve Ballmer is the most successful executive in the history. He is the richest person in the world to have become a billionaire as a result of employment compensation. Google Chairman, Eric Schmidt is second to Ballmer in this respect.

In my limited thinking, the major failure of Steve Ballmer was not managing media perception about him and not having personal relationships with tech PR folks. Eric Schmidt mastered this area and now it's a part of his core job at Google.

Going forward, I believe that Steve Ballmer will remain on the Board of Directors and will continue to influence, guide and mentor the new CEO along with Chairman Bill Gates. Ballmer's ownership of Microsoft way more than that of ValueAct, an activist investor that (perhaps) forced the decision of Ballmer's early retirement.

My choice for the next CEO of Microsoft -- unless Bill Gates re-considers his answer to my question -- is Tony Bates. Pundits and gamblers are betting on who the next CEO of Microsoft would be. It is Steve Ballmer's genius that he has already brought on board and trained the next CEO of Microsoft.

However, whoever the new CEO might be, he or she will find themselves at a stage all set by Steve Ballmer. Major internal changes that could be done to Microsoft have been done already.

Things that Ballmer has left for the new CEO are external. First and the foremost of such external to-do-things is disrupting the OEMs who make pathetic hardware products that look crap in front of Macbook Air, iMac and iPhone. At the time of writing this article, I personally use Windows 8.1 Pro Preview on my Macbook Air, Macbook Pro and iMac. Microsoft's own hardware products and devices would be a key to unlock the growth potential of Windows 8 based devices.

I will remember Steve Ballmer as a legend and as the greatest friend any entrepreneur ever had. Entrepreneurs and startups are in dire need of confidants and executives like Ballmer, not co-founders.