Now that we’ve endured the unpleasant spectacle of Steve Ballmer crying over the loss of the company he ruined during his 14 years as CEO, it’s time to focus on who put Ballmer in charge in the first place: Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates.
Three major Microsoft investors are pushing the company’s board to remove Gates as Chairman. They’re especially concerned about Gates’ power on the committee seeking a replacement for Ballmer, fearing another catastrophic executive in charge.
I think the board needs to go further: Gates should be removed from the Microsoft board altogether, and I’ll tell you why below.
But wait, you might say. Gates is a genius and a visionary, right?
While everybody says Gates is brilliant, history suggests otherwise. In fact, the history of Gates’ decision-making at Microsoft is mostly a long list of missed opportunities, bad judgment calls and blunders.
Yes, Microsoft and Gates have made a truckloads of money over the years. But Gate’s business successes while he ruled Microsoft were at least as attributable to total engagement, incredibly hard work and blind luck as they were to Gate’s vision or genius.
Gates was always a hard-core workaholic and a slave driver par excellence. He was famous for ripping subordinates to shreds in meetings, destroying the ideas of others by saying: “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The ability to humiliate staff was the one thing Gates had in common with arch-rival Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple. Gates was always great at keeping employees afraid, which is an effective motivator he can no longer use from the board.
Gates did have early insight into software as his generation’s biggest business opportunity. When hippy hackers thought software should be free, Gates insisted on charging whatever the market would bear. When IBM thought operating system software was unimportant enough to control, Gates knew it was a Golden Goose.
But Gates always had a blind spot for understanding people -- i.e., customers, users, markets and culture -- and this led to Gates consistently make incredibly bad decisions, such as:
* Missing every Internet opportunity, until it was way too late, including search engines
* Failing to maintain the lead in browsers with Internet Explorer
* Failing with AutoPC, Microsoft’s play for the automotive market
* Pushing pen computing as a layer on top of bloated, expensive Windows
* Believing Microsoft Bob and Clippy were the solutions to Microsoft’s overly complex and confusing interfaces.
* Pushing OEM partners to embrace Origami, the Microsoft-led mobile initiative that failed catastrophically
* Making Steve Ballmer, Gates’ incompetent college pal, CEO
* Keeping Ballmer in charge even after years of obvious failure
* Shipping Windows Vista and not knowing it would harm the company
* Failing to understand how complex Windows versioning options hurt the brand
* Launching Zune, Windows Phone or Microsoft Surface RT years too late to make a difference
As you can see, these are not small blunders, but gigantic ones: Microsoft has failed with every one of its Internet initiatives and every one of its mobile initiatives. This is especially bad because the Internet and mobile computing have been the leading drivers of technology for the past 14 years.
These blunders all have a common origin, too: Bill Gates always had way too much power, and no understanding of human nature.
Contrast this against Steve Jobs, a CEO with relatively limited technical expertise but a very keen insight into human desires. While Gates and his man Ballmer drove Microsoft into the ground since 1999, Jobs built Apple into the most valuable company in the world.
Gates devotes most his time and energy to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. So he doesn’t bring his core value to the company -- his workaholic, slave-driving obsession. And he’s never been a visionary.
His only role now on the Microsoft board is to use his outsized influence as founder and former CEO to keep the company from making better decisions.
I believe Gates installed and supported Ballmer because he would run the company the Bill Gates way. Ballmer’s only qualification for the CEO job was his total loyalty to Gates.