Steve Ballmer's Legacy as Microsoft CEO: 10 Highs and Lows

By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 2013-10-09 Print this article Print

Just a few weeks ago, a video leaked onto the Web of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer speaking before his employees at their annual meeting. Dressed in a yellow shirt, Ballmer held back tears as he talked about his love for Microsoft, how grateful he was for their assistance over the years and his belief that Microsoft's best years are still in the future. Although Ballmer has said such things before, his comments this time around had a bit more weight to them. At some point in the next several months, Ballmer will step down as Microsoft's CEO, leaving behind more than a decade of smart calls, mistakes, and plenty of boisterous leaping and shouting on trade show stages. On Sept. 27, Ballmer issued what will be his last letter to shareholders as the company's chief executive. In it, he said Microsoft should continue to develop hardware products by creating a "family of devices and services." But perhaps a look back is more appropriate at this juncture. When Ballmer is replaced, it's entirely possible that his successor will change Microsoft's focus. However, it can't be denied that Ballmer has profoundly influenced Microsoft's development as one of the wealthiest and successful corporations in history. This slide show looks at some of the salient events in Ballmer's career.

  • Steve Ballmer's Legacy as Microsoft CEO: 10 Highs and Lows

    By Don Reisinger
    0-Steve Ballmer's Legacy as Microsoft CEO: 10 Highs and Lows
  • Ballmer Moves Out From Under Gates Shadow

    When Ballmer was officially named Microsoft CEO in January 2000, he was decidedly overshadowed by founder Bill Gates, who took on the role as the company's chief software architect. For years, many wondered if Gates would step down and give Ballmer a chance to lead the company. But after Gates departed in 2006, Ballmer showed that he was capable of running one of the IT industry's most successful companies.
    1-Ballmer Moves Out From Under Gates Shadow
  • Proving Microsoft Could Make It in the Home

    There was a time when it looked like Microsoft wouldn't stray far from its core enterprise application and PC operating system business. Under Ballmer, however, the company changed that by popularizing the Xbox game console, especially in North America and Europe. Now the U.S. company leads the gaming industry that was historically dominated by Japanese companies.
    2-Proving Microsoft Could Make It in the Home
  • A Willingness to Move Beyond Software

    While for most of its history Microsoft never built PCs in competition with its PC OEM partners, it has always been in the hardware business at least in a small way with PC accessories such as the Microsoft Mouse. But under Ballmer, things have changed considerably. Not only did Microsoft market Xbox game consoles and the Surface tablets, but Ballmer recently announced a major restructuring that will see the company focus more on "a family of devices" and enterprise services that go far beyond its focus on Windows and Office. If Microsoft keeps following Ballmer's vision, the company will launch "devices and services that people love and businesses need," he said in his shareholder letter.
    3-A Willingness to Move Beyond Software
  • Microsoft Was Hugely Profitable

    Profitability was never an issue under Ballmer. In fact, Microsoft watched its profit soar with him at the helm—rising 215 percent to $23 billion. And Microsoft's revenue jumped to $70 billion, up from the $25 billion it earned before his promotion to CEO. From a financial perspective, Ballmer was quite effective.
    4- Microsoft Was Hugely Profitable
  • But Big Profits Didn't Generate Lofty Stock Prices

    One of Ballmer's biggest issues over the years has been his interaction with investors. During the first half of his tenure, he was viewed by some shareholders as the man Bill Gates hand-picked to run the day-to-day operations while the founder actually kept the company on course. More recently, Ballmer was criticized by investors, like David Einhorn, who argued that his inability to get Microsoft's stock price to move made him an ineffective leader. Working with shareholders has never been easy for Ballmer.
    5-But Big Profits Didn't Generate Lofty Stock Prices
  • The Great Google Conundrum

    When Ballmer leaves Microsoft's C-suite, he will retire as a man who—from search, to online advertising to mobile software and to mobile devices—couldn't figure out how to beat Google. Instead, Google has consistently beaten Microsoft to these important new markets. This made Google the glamour growth investment of the new millennium, while Microsoft looked stodgy by comparison despite its huge revenue and profits.
    6-The Great Google Conundrum
  • Navigating Out of the Windows Vista Mess

    Windows Vista was a mess. As soon as it launched worldwide in January 2007, users revolted. Consumers said the operating system's design changes and User Account Control were awful, and businesses complained of productivity losses. However, Ballmer was able to lead Microsoft through those several years of nagging trouble in its core PC operating system by launching Windows 7. Say what you will about Windows Vista, but it certainly didn't kill Microsoft's Windows business as some had predicted.
    7-Navigating Out of the Windows Vista Mess
  • A Friendlier Microsoft?

    When Gates was still running Microsoft, the company was in the midst of antitrust proceedings, facing heavy fines and regulatory scrutiny at home and abroad along with claims that it was an evil monopoly. While Ballmer didn't turn that perception around overnight, he worked to demonstrate that the company would work within the limits set by regulators. As a result, Microsoft is facing somewhat less regulatory scrutiny and perhaps less of a reputation as an evil business empire.
    8-A Friendlier Microsoft?
  • Windows 8 and the Surface Tablets Were the Final Straw

    The writing was on the wall for Ballmer after Microsoft faced two major crises in the past year. First, PC users turned their backs on Windows 8 because they disliked major changes to the user interface and because they were still quite happy with Windows 7 or even Windows XP. Then Ballmer had to deal with poor sales of Microsoft's heavily promoted Surface tablets. Microsoft captured only single-digit market shares with the tablets. Worse yet, Microsoft took a $900 million write-down on unsold Surface RT tablets. These were one-two punches Ballmer couldn't recover from.
    9-Windows 8 and the Surface Tablets Were the Final Straw
  • Ballmer Was Far From Ready to Leave

    Ballmer's swan song to investors was less an admission that his time has come and gone than a desire to make shareholders realize that he did a lot of good for the software company. His crying on-stage at his last employee annual went beyond nostalgia or a profound love for the company he helped build for the past 33 years. Ballmer simply wasn't ready to go.
    10-Ballmer Was Far From Ready to Leave
Don Reisinger is a freelance technology columnist. He started writing about technology for Ziff-Davis' Since then, he has written extremely popular columns for, Computerworld, InformationWeek, and others. He has appeared numerous times on national television to share his expertise with viewers. You can follow his every move at

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