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

NEWS ANALYSIS: Outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt could not have presented more contrasting styles in separate Gartner Symposium interviews.

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.