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June 20, 2008 3:04 am
As Bill Gates prepares to step down from his full-time role at Microsoft at the end of this month, Steve Ballmer, chief executive officer, talked to Richard Waters, San Francisco bureau chief, about life after Mr Gates, Microsoft’s struggles in the internet search business, and his long-term plans for the company.
FINANCIAL TIMES: So, you finally got rid of that other guy. Now we want to know what you’re going to do.
STEVE BALLMER: Onward and upward, baby. Onward and upward.
FT: What does it mean to lose Bill Gates from his full-time role?
MR BALLMER: Well, in a way you lose a talent like Bill, you lose a talent like Bill. But the culture of the place is built on a lot of things. It’s not just built on the leaders; it’s built on the leaders and the experiences that we’ve had, and the successes and the failures. At some point it’s not what leaders say, it’s the accumulation of sort of direction and experiences, successes and failures. The culture builds up itself.
I think his legacy will sustain itself, the kinds of things, you know, Bill values - intelligence and intensity. I don’t think Bill going away actually will detract from the culture. I’ve seen this at Wal-Mart. I mean, Sam Walton has been gone now quite a while, and yet the culture lives on in many ways. So, I don’t really think that’s a very big deal at all.
FT: How have you prepared personally for this?
MR BALLMER: [In college] we had to read some passages from [Max] Weber on the routinisation of charisma, talking about how governments in this case primarily move on and transition after a charismatic leader. So, you could say I’ve thought a little bit, and I picked it up and dusted it back off and looked at it. The truth of the matter is the important thing is to point forward and to keep people pointed forward. This is a funny transition, because - how do I say this the right way? Bill started the company, but for the people in the company it’s as much my company almost as it is Bill’s, in a sense. So, it’s not like we’re passing it to let me call it a second generation. I feel relatively first generation, let me say it that way, to our employees. I’m not Bill, but I have some of that first generation fairy dust sprinkled over me, so to speak.
FT: Microsoft’s share price hasn’t done much for years. Why not?
MR BALLMER: Well, I think in general we’re not that inconsistent with most large cap stocks. [Also,] for all companies there is a period in which your stock is priced very high on the expectation of growth, and then you go through a period where you’re in “show me,” you’re going to do that growth. This is what the market is supposed to do, it’s supposed to bid your price up in advance of profit, if it thinks you’re going to have them, and then it holds on for a while until you can surprise the market with yet another surge beyond expectations.
So, I think we have grown into what people expected of us in the late ’90s, and now people are trying to decide what do they expect of us, and that gets down to essentially three or four key questions. Are we going to stay strong in the businesses where we have established ourselves? Are we going to be able to move into big, new businesses like online, TV, and phone? Are we going to continue to drive [the] enterprise business, because I think that’s a sleeper for many people, it’s been the thing that’s really propelled a lot of our growth over the last several years, and are we going to be able to get emerging markets really figured out with the high software piracy there?
You know, our share price was sort of on a different trajectory. Then we announced our bid for Yahoo, and that kind of changed the trajectory a little bit. As investors try to think, how are they going to succeed in online, what kind of investment is going to be required, how much value can they create, I feel very good about our prospects. Certainly I feel very good about our results. We’ve out-performed most of our industry in terms of profit growth over the last five years.
FT: The Yahoo bid was taken partly as a tacit admission that you needed to do something fairly radical. Was that a fair response?
MR BALLMER: No, it’s inaccurate. It may be fair; I can’t comment as to fair. In a sense online is our best deal, isn’t it? We’re small; the other guys are big. There’s a market out there. We have only one way to go, and it’s up, baby, up, up, up, up, up!
We thought we could accelerate the upside in a way that was value-creating. At the end of the day, Yahoo was not an online strategy. It was a way for us to accelerate our own online strategy. They didn’t want to sell. We were relatively disciplined about the financials You know, it’s funny, because we’re founders, I think [shareholders] wonder whether we really care about creating shareholder value, and yet I think we were far more disciplined than 95 out of 100 companies would be.
FT: What lessons are there from Microsoft’s late move into search?
MR BALLMER: I think we have to keep agile. I do fault us for the speed with which we dove into search, primarily because we didn’t see the business model. And I give Google credit for innovating in the business model around search. They did a nice job on that, and that’s why they won.
I think one of the mistakes we made, and I think we’ve said this before, is having a five-year gap between Windows releases did calcify our ability to react to anything, because there was a five-year window basically where a big part of our R&D resources were fairly locked in. It doesn’t mean everything should be a six-month cycle, I don’t believe in that, but we’ve got to have more flexibility in our R&D commitments than that.
FT: How do you deal with search now?
MR BALLMER: I think we have three things we’ve got to do. There are some things that we just have to, as we say, ante up to be in the game: relevance, cap-ex, responsiveness. There are areas in which we’re going to differentiate and make Google play catch-up. And then there are areas in which we’re trying to change the rules. I think Google is going to have to decide whether they want to come with us. If this Live Cashback thing is successful, they’re going to have to decide if they want to play the game or not. [Note: Microsoft’s Live Cashback service, announced last month, pays a rebate to internet users if they make a purchase after finding an online merchant through a Microsoft’s search engine.]
FT: Is Live Cashback a way to buy market share?
MR BALLMER: No. Well, I don’t know. If somebody else comes out with a product and says my product is better and cheaper, is that buying market share because they made the thing cheaper? That’s all we’ve really done here.
Search looks free, but, of course, search isn’t really free. It’s not free to the advertisers. So, what we’ve said is we’re going to change the way the money gets divided. In today’s world the search provider basically keeps everything, and we’ve said, look, we’re going to share that money differently, some to the advertiser, some to the user, and some to us. Is that buying market share? I think that’s called reinventing the business model in a way that makes the business more competitive, and we’ll see if it works or if it doesn’t.
I’ve got to tell you, in every - other than the battle with Open Source, every other competitor, I love being able to come into a room and saying we’re better and we’re cheaper. We’re going to try to say we’re better and we’re cheaper basically. I don’t think this is sort of the end of the story by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it tells you we’re going to do things a little differently.
We’re going to have to climb up one [market] share point at a time, one innovation at a time. I don’t think this is something that changes, flips overnight.
FT: Why hasn’t that approach worked so far? You’ve been at it for some time.
MR BALLMER: No, no, we’ve been building up the basic ante primarily. We had no search engine and we had no paid search engine. We had to build. Then we had to get one round of feedback on where we weren’t up to snuff. Then we had to start tactical differentiation. Now we’re starting some business model differentiation. We’ve got some UI innovation.
You know, the world isn’t very smart about technology businesses in the sense of thinking they move super quickly. Things do move quickly, there’s no question, but generally at the end of the day you have to be fairly patient and persistent with innovation in order for it to beak through.
FT: A lot of people are now saying Yahoo was Web 1.0 and would have been difficult to do, and you should instead be looking at the next thing - Facebook or social networking, whatever comes after that.
MR BALLMER: I think people don’t understand what they’re talking about. At the end of the day, this is about the ad platform. This is not about just any one of the applications. The most important application for the foreseeable future is search. It’s where you start things. It’s where you express intent. It is important.
I don’t think we can say, okay, well, we’re going to be in the ad platform business, and we’re going to do it just on the strength of non-search based assets. We have to be in the ad business, and we’ve got to have a good chunk. We don’t have to dominate, but we’d better have a darn good chunk of the search market over time, and we’re working away at it.
FT: How long are you going to do this job for?
MR BALLMER: I’ve told everybody I think I’d like to do it until my youngest goes to college, which would be nine years from now. I mean, it might wind up less, the board might not want me here, but that’s kind of my life planning horizon.
FT: How do you want to be judged? What goals have you set yourself for that period?
MR BALLMER: I set two kinds of goals: innovation goals, and what I’ll call relative goals.
The relative goals: I’d like to see our company increase its share of profit from all companies who have software as a core capability. I’d like to see us increase our share of the pool. What we are is we’re a software innovation machine. We can turn that machine and apply it in different places. We’re not just a desktop company or an enterprise company; we’re an online company, we’re a software embedded in devices company. And we should be able to outgrow the rest of them.
We’re not going to do that without the right innovation. [That] rolls up into five or six big themes. How do you redefine the way people interact with technology, big screen, little screen, medium-sized screen? How do you redefine the user experience and redefine the definition of how these devices relate to each other? We’ve got some big ideas in that area. I’d like to get those accomplished in the next nine years.
All of the world’s media advertising communications is moving online. I would love to be the company that does the best job at helping people put information online, create new forms of information and communication for that online world, and then that helps people - helps businesses monetise them and consumers consume them.
[We’re] going to move to a world in which more and more of computing is done in the cloud as opposed to corporate datacentres We’ve got a big initiative about transforming essentially enterprise computing and taking costs and complexity out of that.
Last but not least, the ability to let people not only get at information but then to analyse it and use it, we’re already talking about this some in the context of consumer search. We say it’s not really about search; it’s about the task. How do I find and act, find and analyse, find and get insight. I think we haven’t even scratched the surface of innovation in that area.
FT: What sets Microsoft apart as it pursues all these things?
MR BALLMER: I think we’re the only company in our industry that’s got any track record of persistence. Some companies get it right once. We’ve gotten it right twice, because we stay after it.
FT: Is that he core attribute of this company, persistence?
MR BALLMER: I think our long term - I’d call it our long term approach, which is a combination of taking on bold challenges, being patient, being persistent, being relentless. There’s an accountability and in some senses you’ve got to be relentlessly accountable and you also have to be willing to stick with things. We don’t pull back; it’s not what we do.
Sometimes we get shareholders who will question us on that, but I think it’s our great strength. It’s what built Windows, it’s what build Office, it’s what built our enterprise business, and what’s going to let us build the search business. It’s what letting us build a TV business.
FT: Have you learned anything from competing with Google, for instance their speed?
MR BALLMER: I haven’t seen speed out of Google really. I mean, come on. They have one product. It’s been the same for five years - and they have Gmail now, but they have one product that makes all their money, and it hasn’t changed in five years.
I mean, they have a gestalt, but gestalt is gestalt. Let’s talk about the reality. The reality is one product makes 98 percent of all of their money, search. Oh, they have two products, AdWords and AdSense. They have two products, both search-based, that make all of their money, and it hasn’t changed a lot in five years. I’m not giving them a hard time, but we’ve got to learn - if you say, what have you learned, we try to learn from people’s successes, not from people’s gestalt. The gestalt is yet to be proven.
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