While a Microsoft spokeswoman would only say that Ballmers schedule had changed and that he was no longer available to give the keynote, sources close to the Redmond, Wash., software firm confirmed that he was in fact in Brussels negotiating with European officials.
That last-minute move by Ballmer comes just a week ahead of a final decision on the long-running antitrust case.
The meeting between Ballmer and European Union officials also comes a day after antitrust advisers from the 15 EU countries approved a draft ruling by the Commission that said that the software giant had broken antitrust law. A final decision is expected on March 24.
Microsoft hopes to avert a far-reaching order that would result in a fine of up to $3 billion and which would force the company to strip Media Player from its flagship operating system in Europe, giving rival products from competitors including RealNetworks Inc. a better chance of getting onto consumer desktops.
The EU draft ruling would also compel Microsoft to release more Windows programming code in the interests of improving interoperability with competing networking software made by Sun Microsystems Inc. and others.
A Microsoft spokeswoman declined to confirm if Ballmer was in Brussels, and a short note sent out by Monday mornings keynote presenter, Bob Muglia, the senior vice president of Microsofts Windows Server Division, said only that "due to an unforeseen schedule change, Steve Ballmer is not able to present the keynote at MMS 2004 tomorrow morning.
"In his place, Kirill Tatarinov will cover material we planned for Steve to cover. Kirill will also provide specific details on our [Microsoft Operations Manager], [Systems Management Server] and Systems Center plans. My apologies for this last-minute change," he said.
The move has caused conference organizers here an enormous headache, given that Ballmer is a popular speaker and many of the some 2,000 attendees at the sold-out show signed up specifically because he was giving a keynote address.
"Yes, its very disappointing," an attendee told eWeek when asked about the shift. "Ballmer is an animated speaker and also leads the company. We come to hear from him about his vision for the future of the company and its products. Having someone else deliver that message just doesnt cut it."