Ballmer’s exit from Microsoft marks the end of an era

Some colleagues and I used to call Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer B5 — Big, Bald, Blustering, Bombastic Ballmer. To me his retirement really signifies the close-out of the PC revolution and the departure of its Rock Stars. Some, like Eagle Computer founder Dennis Barnhart, died early and tragically, in his case in a car crash (Ferrari) on the way home from his company’s IPO. That was in 1983. IBM’s PC creator, Philip Estridge, died along with four other IBM executives in a 1985 plane crash. Others faded early and went on to other things. Lotus Development founder Jim Manzi is now a board member and investor, having left Lotus in 1995 after its acquisition by IBM. John Sculley was another sort. He didn’t invent anything like a new spreadsheet, but controversially brought his marketing expertise from Pepsi to Apple in 1983, departing in 1993. Still others move on to new-era ventures. Scott McNealy, after leaving Sun Microsystems in 2010, is now chairman of Wayin, a company that combs Twitter for content valuable to marketers. Even the trade shows have come and gone. The tech world at one time seesawed annually between PC Expo in New York and Comdex in Las Vegas. To those of us who edited computer magazines in the go-go years, these and so many executives were remarkably available to the trade press. I met and interviewed Steve Ballmer a couple of times. The first time he teased me about having a Palm IIIc instead, of course, of a Windows CE device. A year later, he remembered. “Still have that crummy Palm pilot?” he asked. You see a PC now, and it almost looks like an aging appliance, like a Sony Trinitron with dial tuners. The 4.7 MHz processor in the original IBM PC may seem laughable, but you need the perspective of having made a living on a manual typewriter and a dial telephone, as I did early in my career, to really grasp the profound way the PC changed everything. Now we’re in the mobile revolution. Mobility is incomplete. Tablets are horrible at handling documents and spreadsheets – and make no mistake, written documents like Word and Excel files and their analogs still exist as essentials for people and organizations. Even the mobile version of WordPress is balky. One reason is touch-screen and mouse-enabled operating systems don’t play all that nicely together. Maybe that’s why Windows 8 is so bad. Also wireless connectivity feels spotty and expensive. For these and many other reasons, the console approach to computing will be around a while. Getting back to Ballmer, his announced retirement does evoke an end-of-era feeling. Microsoft as a wondrous growth phenom — hated, admired, feared — has faded. Now it’s another middle-aged packaged products company, rich in cash but struggling to find the next sustainable big thing. Remember when people waited all night and the ensuing frenzy to buy copies of Windows95? That ain’t happenin’ again. In fact, Microsoft shares rose on the initial announcement from Ballmer. Analyses of his tenure at the top of Microsoft are decidedly mixed. Still, I’ll miss Ballmer and others like him for a simple reason. He’s human. The Google, Amazon, Apple, Samsung, Twitter crowd seems colorless, distant, or just plain odd. When Amazon’s Jeff Bezos agreed to acquire the Washington Post, the New York Times pointedly referenced how Amazon always has “no comment” on anything. By contrast, McNealy once saw me at the Washington Convention Center on a platform where Federal News Radio was doing a live remote broadcast. He wanted to be on the radio, unscheduled, so he pestered our producer and came on the show, by golly. Imagine Bezos doing that. Some of the others seem too concerned with Washington, as if innovation happens here. I’m sorry, it does not, not since the Manhattan Project. I don’t like business executives who pal around too much with politicians. Washington is essentially antithetical to business. Plus, I trust greed for wealth more than I trust lust for power or fame. Ballmer was an unabashed salesman, as old videos like this attest. That founders crowd seemed more human, as in this video where Steve Jobs seems to shed a tear. Though investors and a good many insiders feel it’s past time for new leadership for Microsoft, don’t shed a tear for Ballmer. A Wall Street Journal blog notes, his very departure announcement made his stake in the company worth another billion dollars.

Tom Temin is host of The Federal Drive, which airs 6-10 a.m. on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog, Temin on Tech.