Ballmer vs Jobs

Stuart Turton
2 Oct 2008

I went to see Steve Ballmer speak in London yesterday. For anybody who's not had the pleasure, here's a few simple steps to aid you in recreating the experience. Pick up your chair, pop it in the car and drive to the airport, then sit yourself behind the engine of a Boeing 747 and wait for takeoff. When it blasts you through air traffic control, you've pretty much had the experience of Steve Ballmer in full flow.

 He's a force of nature. He stalks the stage like some slightly crazed but bizarrely literate bear stalking the bars of its cage. He barks his way through his speech, stops, heads off on tangents, U-turns, growls, snarls and flicks insults at rivals with the lethal precision of a ninja throwing shurikens. Take this from yesterday...

"Google has great search, but not much else. They don't have much for enterprise, collaboration, email ... They're trying, but they're not there yet."

 When he bounded onto stage yesterday, he began speaking at a volume that caused every squirrel in a fifteen mile radius to immediately drop out of its tree dead. People in the audience were frozen in shock, as if a whale had just arrived on stage in a bowler hat and started singing showtunes. And halfway through this carnage, it dawned on me. I was being entertained. Contrary to popular perception, Ballmer is a charasmatic man, who is very quick and very funny. 

They're rare qualities to find among hard-headed business folk. If you doubt it, go and watch the recent Android launch presented by the heads of T-Mobile, Google and HTC. I guarantee, when you're done, you'll have grounds to sue for emotional damage. What really interests me though is the other, supposed, practioneer of these qualities - Mr Steve Jobs.

Attending a Jobs keynote is a surreal experience. Not least because I've never seem him speak beyond an Apple-hosted event. It's like a football team that refuses to play away games, and it means everything's in his favour. A good 80% of the people attending the event would applaud a can of spam if it had an Apple logo on it. PRs begin clapping a few seconds before everyone else, just so the rest of us know when to whoop and holler. And then he arrives with his jeans, black polo neck and speech prepared to within an inch of its life, so that any hint of spontaneity is completely crushed out of it. 

Don't believe me? Then let's play the "Jobs' stock phrase" game: Just cut out the following list of stock phrases and count them off at his next keynote - "Isn't that fantastic?" - "I'd like to show it to you, if you'd let me?" - "We think that's pretty cool" - "It's awesome".

The entire thing reminds me of one of those rubbish 70s sitcoms chock full of tired, old catchphrases instead of innovative new ideas. As for Job as a showman? Well he likes to wave his arms a bit.

None of which is a reflection of their business savy, of course. All that concerns me here, is the image put forth by the Mac community that Steve Jobs is some kind of incredible showman, able to stop time with a bat of his eyelids, and the world with a movement of his lips. It's a lie. He's just a very clever man in a polo neck. Give me Ballmer any day of the week. 


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