10 changes Steve Ballmer should make at Microsoft

When I appeared on CBC Newsworld last week to talk about Bill Gates’ departure from Microsoft, they asked me whether I thought the company can survive without him. I tried not to roll my eyes.

“I realize there’s a temptation to identify with the founder of a company,” I said, “but he’s put a good succession plan in place. Ford Motor Co. managed to survive without Henry Ford, and I think Microsoft will survive without Bill Gates.”

I barely mentioned Steve Ballmer, because I wasn’t sure how well he would be recognized by a mainstream audience. Although he’s a familiar face within corporate IT departments, I’d argue he’s still not a household name. Here are a few of the things he needs to do next, whether he ever becomes one or not.

1. Make user education a corporate mission. We all know there are more features in Word, Excel and Windows itself that customers simply do not understand. As a result, they spend too much time and energy working around problems Microsoft’s products already solve. Ballmer should invest some marketing dollars in a “Did You Know That Windows Can . . .” campaign that highlights the work Microsoft’s developers have done.

2. Don’t leave the technical vision to Ray Ozzie. The former Groove Networks leader is capable of great insight into technology trends and writing extremely long staff memos, but it should be Ballmer who most clearly articulates the kind of computing environments Microsoft wants to help customers build in the next decade. The last thing he should want is to be seen as merely the sales guy. As Steve Jobs proves, you don’t have to write code to offer some inspiring thoughts on the management of information. Even Gates left too much of the heavy lifting to his subordinates during keynotes. Ballmer should try to change that.

3. Open yourself up as a case study. It can’t be easy running one of the world’s largest companies, so Ballmer should be able to provide CIOs and IT managers a unique perspective on how Microsoft uses technology to align itself with business objectives. He should talk about Microsoft walks the walk.

4. Don’t bash the competition. Microsoft is still dominant in nearly every market, so it makes no sense for Ballmer to bash Google, Apple or other rivals as he has in the past. Microsoft should be more focused on improving its products and growing its business, not swatting at what, in a market share sense, are still flies. There’s no need for the Scott McNealy approach here.

5. Start an open source project. Microsoft has stuck to the same business model for years, but what if its dream team of developers actually reached out to independent ISVs and offered them the same kind of ability to tweak future products as Mozilla does with Firefox, or the way Linux evolves? The company doesn’t even need to release the result as a commercial product (call it “Office Sandbox,” for example) but it would help the company start the kind of positive grassroots following it needs. The whole “shared source” strategy has only gone so far. And although it has released thousands of documentation around Windows and Office already, it needs to communicate something about the difference that’s made to the industry.

6. Engineer a smooth transition to Windows 7. After the Vista debacle (and by extension the XP fiasco), it’s hard to imagine things getting much worse, but demonstrate a willingness to let customers upgrade at their own pace. If companies like SAP are able to offer feature packages to customers rather than demand an ERP overall, Microsoft should be able to do the same thing with its operating system.

7. Partner where it counts. Microsoft’s agreement with Novell was supposed to usher in a new era of interoperability. That may have happened for Suse Linux customers (although there’s not a lot of proof yet), but what about more popular distributions like Red Hat? They’ve held out so far, but Ballmer should be working hard to change their minds.

8. Iron out your acquisition approach. Too much attention has been focused on the buyout of Yahoo and not enough on what Microsoft is doing with the firms it actually managed to purchase. This includes Fast Search and Transfer. We should be seeing the beginnings of a new enterprise search strategy from Microsoft by now. Where is it?

9. Get friendly with the social networking crowd. So what if Microsoft invested in Facebook? Microsoft should be developing for Facebook, just like all the other ISVs that want some exposure to an often technically savvy audience. Imagine if Microsoft created something that make social networking easier, safer or easier to integrate with its applications. That would change a lot of people’s perceptions about its laggard approach to the Internet.

10. Don’t give up on spam. Bill Gates predicted the world would be free of the unsolicited e-mail scourge by 2006. Microsoft had the talent to deliver, and still has. Ballmer would make a considerable mark at Microsoft, and within the IT industry in general, if he could marshal he resources to make good on his predecessor’s promise.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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