Steve Ballmer and Ray Ozzie at All things Digital – a poor performance

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie put on a poor performance when quizzed by Walt Mossberg at the All Things Digital conference, judging by Ina Fried’s live blog.

What was wrong with it? They allowed the conversation to be focused mainly on competing products: Apple iPad, Google Android, Google Apps, Google search. Since these products have exposed weaknesses in Microsoft’s own offerings, it was unlikely to work out well.

Mossberg asks about the transition to the cloud. “You guys are putting, for instance, a version of Office in the cloud.”

That was a gift. You would expect the two men to enthuse about how Microsoft’s dominance with desktop Office was now including the cloud as well, how the Office Web Apps enable new opportunities for collaboration, how Microsoft’s investment in XML for Office was now enabling the same document to live both on the desktop and in the cloud.

Nope. Ozzie waffles about people being more connected. Ballmer “disputes the notion that everything is moving to the cloud”.

So what about Steve Jobs prediction, of a transition from PCs to tablets and mobile devices? Ballmer says “not everyone can afford five devices,” lending support to the notion that Windows is for those who cannot afford something better.

Mossberg asks about tablets. Although Mossberg did not say so explicitly, tablets have been a tragi-comedy at Microsoft. Bill Gates evangelised the tablet concept years ago, pre-echoing Jobs’ claim that they would largely replace laptops. Microsoft tried again and again, with XP Tablet Edition, Vista on tablets, then “Origami”, or Ultra-mobile PC. Going back even further there were was the stylus-driven Palm-size PC (I have one in the loft). Tablet PC was not a complete failure, but remained an expensive niche. Origami sank without trace.

Ballmer replied that the “race is on”. Meaning? I guess, now that Apple has demonstrated how to make a successful Tablet, Microsoft will copy it? Or what?

I am not sure how you defend such a poor track record; but the starting point would be to explain that Microsoft has learned from past mistakes. In some ways it has; Windows 7 learns from mistakes in Vista, and Windows Phone 7 learns from mistakes in Windows Mobile.

None of that from Ballmer, who says vaguely that he expects Windows to run on a variety of devices. He makes matters worse later, by defending the stylus. “A lot of people are going to want a stylus,” he says. Some do, perhaps, but Apple has pretty much proved that most people prefer not to have one. I’d like to see effort go into designing away the need for a stylus, rather than implying that Microsoft is just going to repeat its part mistakes.

Someone in the audience asks, “Will we see Silverlight on Android or iPhone?” “My guess is  if it did, it would be blocked”, says Ballmer, ignoring the Android part of the question.

He’s ignoring the force of the question. Why bother developing for Silverlight, if it is locked into a Microsoft-only future, especially considering the company’s poor position in mobile currently? Ballmer could have mentioned the Nokia Symbian port. He could have said how Microsoft would get it on iPhone just as soon as Apple would allow it. He could have said that Microsoft is working with Google on an Android port – I don’t know if it is, but certainly it should be. He could have said that Silverlight plus Visual Studio plus Microsoft’s server applications is a great platform that extends beyond Windows-only clients.

Microsoft does have problems; but it also has strong assets. However it is doing an exceptionally poor job of communicating its strengths.

Update: There is a fuller transcript at Engadget, in which Ballmer and Ozzie come over better, though they still fail to impress. On mobile though, I like this comment:

We have new talent, we had to do some cleanup, we did it for Windows, and we’re doing it for mobile. And excellence in execution is also part of the equation.

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone present at the event.

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7 comments to Steve Ballmer and Ray Ozzie at All things Digital – a poor performance

  • That’s consistent with my recent experiences watching many of Microsoft’s top executives. There is no clear message grounding their comments. It’s like they’re waiting for their vision to spontaneously emerge from the company’s considerable efforts. More likely, they are approving projects with too little understanding about how and where the uptake will occur.

  • “Why bother developing for Silverlight, if it is locked into a Microsoft-only future, especially considering the company’s poor position in mobile currently?”

    Funny I should read this since I just ranted about this today on the MSDN forums.

    Not a good time to be a developer (or me) in the Microsoft mobile space.

  • Silverlight has no cross-platform story. It’s an MS-only technology, and as such is of limited interest to those (most?) of us who don’t see Microsoft having much to do with the future of computing.

  • To clarify “has no cross-platform story” – neither Mono nor Moonlight are viable platforms. Both are patent encumbered, and the “OSP” is useless. When it comes to “promise”, Microsoft is not a corporation that springs to mind, unless it’s regarding “broken” ones or “lack of”.

  • Stefan Wenig

    Dave, the OSP is not a vague promise, it’s a legally binding document. You don’t have to believe anything, because it would hold in court.

  • What’s your angle, Stefan?

    One wonders why Microsoft didn’t just license it under an established open source license like any thoughtful contributor to the community might, even if only as a show of good will…

    Here’re some guesses:
    http://www.groklaw.net/articlebasic.php?story=20080417104016186
    http://www.zdnet.com/blog/open-source/microsoft-osp-is-a-pie-crust-promise/2125
    http://www.softwarefreedom.org/resources/2008/osp-gpl.html

    Microsoft never do anything that isn’t focused on preserving their monopoly (and therefore monopoly profits). Anyone who believes otherwise hasn’t been conscious for the past 15 years. The OSP is not a show of good faith to the open source community by Microsoft. Everyone in the FOSS community sees it for what it is: a carefully shrouded middle finger.

  • Stefan Wenig

    The OSP is about patents, FOSS licenses are about copyrights. If you want OSS, use Mono. But you don’t, because of patents. And the fact that patents are covered by the OSP doesn’t make you happy either, because it should be under a FOSS license, which Mono is, only that..

    Wait, I’m not gonna get caught in your echo chamber loop. Let’s not talk about 15 years, just try to be conscious for a minute before you post.