Ballmer, Schmidt Talks a Study in Contrasts on Gartner Symposium Stage

By Eric Lundquist  |  Posted 2013-10-09

Ballmer, Schmidt Talks a Study in Contrasts on Gartner Symposium Stage

They weren’t on the stage at the same time, which would have made the Gartner mastermind interview series much more interesting. But over two days, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took turns on the stage in front of a packed hall of existing and potential customers.

These keynote interviews are one of the highlights of the Gartner Symposium, more for the ability to get a big name on the stage than any in-your-face grilling. The questions tend to be pre-arranged and softball in velocity.

The styles of the two tech titans could not be more different. Ballmer, even in his long good-bye as the CEO of Microsoft, is ever the salesman ready to rise (in voice and body language) to challenge any question that might indicate faulty judgment or lack of vision. Schmidt is the model of media cool, with calm answers to even modestly controversial questions, and is ready to slip into the role of one of the technology elders overcoming past defeats to now be at the top of the tech pyramid.

Ballmer is the better entertainer. It is very easy to imagine him prowling the corridors in Redmond ready to wilt any exec challenging the Windows everywhere mantra and keeping score with his own rulebook. Microsoft enjoyed enormous financial success under his reign, but his rule will be remembered as the period when Microsoft was a very late entrant to the mobile and cloud trends that are upending enterprise computing.

“All problems solved by technology are ultimately solved by developers,” Ballmer told the audience, as he rose a bit from his chair. Was he about to re-enact his famous “developers, developers, developers,” chant, which is a YouTube favorite and is the benchmark for tech managers showing over-the-top enthusiasm? The questioners stayed away from asking Ballmer about his retirement or replacement, but it was clear he is prepared to keep swinging and not sit in place during the interim.

One of the jobs of the mastermind keynote series is for the person interviewed to drop some tidbits. Ballmer came through and said an iPad version of Office is in the works (no delivery date). He also said a common Windows platform across all devices is in the works, and despite grumbles from the audience, there are no plans to change the company’s convoluted licensing strategy.

This was Ballmer’s tenth appearance at Gartner, and he left the stage accompanied by a standing ovation. The walk off the stage indeed felt like an era passing in enterprise computing and the applause was well-deserved.


Ballmer, Schmidt Talks a Study in Contrasts on Gartner Symposium Stage

The day before Ballmer’s appearance, it was Eric Schmidt’s turn on the stage. You would be hard-pressed to find an executive whose previous companies (Novell and Sun) were more thoroughly flattened by Microsoft and who staged a comeback to lead one of the premier technology companies.

Google, even in the enterprise, is the company by which other firms are measured. The cloud, mobile, social and big data are the current drivers of enterprise tech, and Google is the top, or near the top, player in those segments. Listening to Schmidt, it was evident that his command of technology, new management strategies and ability to enjoy the anarchy-leading young developers are exactly the characteristics Microsoft needs. I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

Schmidt’s tidbits for the audience members included reminding them it costs about $60 a year, per employee to get the full suite of Google products. (That is a simple license strategy.) He also went into a defense of Android and offered up the statement that Android phones are more secure than iPhones. That one drew audience snickers. He was also vocal about warning the audience about Chinese-originated hack attacks on enterprise technology infrastructures.

“Technology development is best managed bottom up for innovation and top down for priorities,” said Schmidt when asked how he manages a company the size of Google. He is currently writing a management book on running technology companies. I’m figuring it will be an ebook.

So, who won the match-up? Although Ballmer was the hometown favorite with lots of stops on the symposium stage and nearly everyone in the audience was a Microsoft customer at some level, he is leaving the company as it struggles to catch up with the major shifts that now top those customers' priority lists. Schmidt’s record is a classic Rocky theme of someone getting knocked down in the early rounds to return and finally get the belt. Maybe it wasn’t a knockout, but Schmidt won on points.

Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC WEEK) from 1996-2008, authored this article for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this article. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this article and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.


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