Ballmer leads the new age of leaders

Updated: Jun 27 2008, 03:45am hrs
Steve Ballmer has been Microsoft Corps chief executive for more than eight years, grappling with some of the largest challenges in the companys history.

Now the pressure begins.

Bill Gates departure from day-to-day Microsoft life will put all eyes on Ballmer as the companys leader. His task is to expand Microsofts traditional businesses, revive its stock price and catch up with fast-moving online rivalsthe biggest of which, Google, is piling up big profits from its Internet search business.

I think the combination of a huge shift in technology and business model, and a competitor who has a golden goose, who can fund a lot of experiments, is really the biggest challenge that Microsoft has ever faced, said Paul Maritz, the former Microsoft group vice-president. If Steve can pull this off, he will go down in history in his own right as one of the great leaders.

But the bigger challenge may belong to Ray Ozzie, who has replaced Gates as chief software architect, and Craig Mundie, who establishes the companys long-term vision as its chief research and strategy officer.

To the degree that theres any question of where the company is going next, and how it will do, its really in their hands, said Mark Anderson, publisher of the Strategic News Service technology newsletter. Its all about technology, and theyre the guys who will set the path.

In an interview, Mundie identified several computing trends that he considers important, including the emergence of large data centres that Microsoft and others will increasingly use to let people synchronise files and other data across multiple PCs and devices. More broadly, Mundie said the company anticipates a proliferation of computing in nontraditional formswith microprocessors and displays embedded in everything from office desks and walls to special-purpose devices. One area the company is targeting is health care, and in one conceptual video Mundie shows, a bedside table displays information about medicine when a prescription bottle is placed on top of it.

Microsoft has long offered software for mobile devices, and its Surface tabletop computer has debuted in commercial settings.

I think were actually quite well positioned now for a world where, pretty much, theres a computer in almost everything, Mundie said. As that happens, he said, Microsofts challenge will be figuring out the experience that people want to have across those devices, and coming up with a way to integrate them so that theyre easy to deal with.

One big litmus test for the post-Gates era will be Windows 7, the code name for the next version of Microsofts flagship PC operating system, which is expected in 2010. The current version, Windows Vista, was delayed repeatedly and debuted to negative reviews.

As a result, Microsoft is under pressure to deliver a high-quality, timely follow-up.

Microsofts software empire is based on its Windows, Office and computer-server franchises. But the company has also expanded into nearly every corner of the technology worldincluding business applications, portable music players, video game consoles and mobile phone software. In many of those areas, Microsoft has struggled to gain market share or turn a profit.

The company launched its own Web search engine in 2005, but it has remained a distant third to Google and Yahoo. That led to Ballmers ultimately unsuccessful attempt to acquire Yahoo for more than $44 billion.

NY Times / Todd Bishop