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Steve Ballmer – PR poisoned chalice or a man who stands his ground?

Posted by Joe McNamara on 3rd September 2013

Steve Ballmer has announced his plans to retire in the next 12 months. It’s hard not to imagine that the PR team at Microsoft may have breathed a sigh of relief considering some of Mr Ballmer’s well-publicised antics over the last 13 years.

Tech hacks have found Ballmer to be the gift that keeps on giving, arming them with as many bullets as they could fire at the company that ruled the world of technology at the turn of the century.

It’s difficult to take a company seriously when its CEO delivers a press conference dripping in sweat because he entered the stage like a WWE superstar, hurtling around yelling ‘I love this company’. But is there method behind the madness? Was Microsoft a sinking ship that Ballmer succeeded in restoring credibility to? Or was Ballmer instrumental in driving Microsoft down a canyon that Bill Gates was wise to avoid?

We’re going to take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of Microsoft in the Ballmer era from a strictly PR perspective.

The mobile asteroid

When Ballmer replaced Gates as Chairman of Microsoft in 2000, it was difficult to see how, even from a PR perspective, their sexier counterpart from Cupertino was winning any positive mindshare. Apple was in a world of trouble. By 1997, having suffered 12 years of failed product lines and decreasing profits after ousting the visionary Steve Jobs from power in 1985; Apple had an uphill mountain to climb in a world that Bill Gates was dominating.

Microsoft was still a software company, a damn good one at that. Its grip on the web-browser market was monopolistic after Gates’ decision in 1995 to bundle Internet Explorer in with Windows 95, effectively damning Netscape Navigator to the scrapheap.

Life seemed quite rosy for the Seattle giant, but in 2007, one device shook Microsoft’s world with the force of an asteroid. Ballmer’s initial reaction to the iPhone was that it was the most expensive phone in the world and wouldn’t appeal to business customers because it didn’t have a keyboard. Six years on, Ballmer is still leading Microsoft into the mobile age.

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s consumer hardware credentials didn’t bode well for staging a war with Apple or Google over smartphones and tablets. Surface sales bombed, probably because Microsoft was so late to the party, but also because it divided its target audience into consumers and enterprises. One would have thought that by 2012, Microsoft would have learned that gone are the days when technology can be all things to all people.

Stick: playing to your strengths

The Xbox One, potentially Ballmer’s last PR fail, suffered a similar fate at E3 as Microsoft was accused of neglecting its gaming audience with a console that appealed to the masses. However, if Ballmer’s successor takes one PR lesson on board, it is that companies that initiate change and see that change through are rewarded with positive column inches. Microsoft believes that there is a mainstream opportunity for gaming and that entertainment is changing – so it must stick at it.

Furthermore, if you are going to arrive late to a technology party, all is not lost as long as you do it better than the early bird. Nintendo owned the motion technology gaming sector with the first Wii, but the Xbox Kinect booted that into the stratosphere with quality engineering.

On the other hand, some things never change and Microsoft has always had one cash cow – software. Mac and Windows users alike are still writing blogs, preparing presentations and analysing spreadsheets using Microsoft Office.

Twist: Has Microsoft learned to ‘think different’?

When it comes to operating systems, it’s been a mixed bag. Windows 8 won Pocket-Lint’s product of the year in 2012, but this year Microsoft announced a colossal U-turn by pledging that it would reintroduce the iconic Start button. Some say that’s listening to your customers, some say it’s not having the courage of your convictions. The point is that Windows 8 was the first Windows OS designed with mobile in mind – and the Nokia Lumia’s popularity would suggest it was a good call.

Moving into the enterprise, Ballmer has overseen Microsoft’s hijacking of the unified communications trend. Lync provides the interface and all the necessary hardware to run it already exists. It’s a massive opportunity for networking vendors and the channel; one that has recently dominated the business computing headlines.

Love it or loathe it, Microsoft is a fascinating company. Ballmer’s biggest PR flaw was his biggest in business too. It wasn’t his cagey media interviews and wild press conferences. It was his inability to initiate change rather than simply react to it. However, in the last few years we’ve seen a slightly different Microsoft.

The Xbox One, Kinect and Lync have shown that Microsoft can still force the market’s hand. The problem seems to be that when the market bites back with some nasty product reviews or a social media outrage, Microsoft hasn’t learned to stand its ground quite the way Apple and Google have.

Under Ballmer there has been progress and in most individual sectors, Microsoft has held its own. It’s when you bring it altogether that Microsoft, like Ballmer, perhaps isn’t perceived as a leader of innovation. But, recent glimmers of hope suggest that even for one of technology’s most maligned companies: do something different, fight your corner, offer a fresh perspective, and the crowd will love you.

Photo courtesy of aanjhan

Joe McNamara