Ballmer’s Secret Message: We’re Making Microsoft Cool

by windowsiso on October 10, 2012

Steve Ballmer’s shareholder letter suggests a new era for Microsoft. Photo by Jon Snyder/Wired

In a letter to shareholders on Tuesday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer laid out a vision of the company as a devices and services business. It is, he noted, “a significant shift, both in what we do and how we see ourselves.” It promises more devices like the Surface and the Xbox — that is, hardware made by Microsoft itself — will be coming to market. And beneath it all is a subtext. After years asleep at the wheel, Microsoft is finally waking up.

In a story for Vanity Fair earlier this year, Kurt Eichenwald described Microsoft’s “lost decade.” He lays the blame squarely on Ballmer and the bloated bureaucracy he fostered that rewarded successful infighting over innovation and design. His description of the company’s “stack ranking” system — where employees on a team are all graded on a curve no matter how well or poorly they actually perform — is damning. But it’s the effect of that system and style that is really profound. As Eichenwald writes, the company is no longer cool. And that’s a problem. “Cool is what tech consumers want. Exhibit A: today the iPhone brings in more revenue than the entirety of Microsoft.”

For years now, Microsoft has been the antithesis of cool. Its phones were a scourge prior to Windows Phone 7. Other than a few high-end gaming rigs, you were hard-pressed to find Windows machines that even gave a nod to aesthetics — at least that is until ultrabooks began aping Apple’s design sensibilities. But Ballmer’s letter seems to indicate that’s changing. Microsoft — bless its khaki pants and light blue Oxford shirt unbuttoned to a sensible level — is trying hard to be cool.

But what is cool? When it comes to technology products, cool is typically something with a beautiful design that works well, does unexpected things, and makes life easier. Something that is not only innovative but that also engenders further innovation — something that lets the people who buy it create wonderful new things. The iPhone is cool. Twitter is cool. The Kinect is cool. And the Surface? Assuming it actually works, it looks very, very cool. Even Microsoft’s UI, the design language formerly known as Metro, is gorgeous and fun. People will build amazing apps that take advantage of that interface. Again, cool.

And that’s what Ballmer’s letter lays out: a vision of cool. Look at some of the visions Ballmer describes: “Xbox Music, Video, Games and SmartGlass apps make it possible to select a movie from a PC, start playing it on the TV, and finish watching it on a phone.” And: “Developing new form factors that have increasingly natural ways to use them including touch, gestures and speech.”

What he’s talking about isn’t just manufacturing new devices. Although it’s that. It’s about making Microsoft cool again. Or, maybe, for the first time.

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