Steve Ballmer: “I probably did some of my very best work at the company after Bill left”

It’s been three years since Steve Ballmer left Microsoft, handing over to Satya Nadella. Despite describing his successes and failures at the company as “ancient history” in an interview with Bloomberg’s Emily Chang, he does reveal some interesting thoughts on his time at the home of Windows, Xbox and, uh, Clippy.

“I probably did some of my very best work at the company after Bill left,” Ballmer tells Chang, citing Bing (“that’s really where we got into the cloud”), Office 365, Azure and the Surface as key moments in his spell as CEO.

There were some hints of a somewhat strained relationship between him and Gates, however. “When I became CEO, we had a very miserable year,” admits Ballmer. “Bill didn’t know how to work for anybody, and I didn’t know how to manage Bill. I’m not sure I ever learned the latter,” Ballmer explains. Asked whether they still see each other much, Ballmer said they had “kinda drifted apart”. From the rest of the interview, there’s definitely a suggestion that Ballmer’s interest in pursuing hardware caused a degree of tension.

“There was a fundamental disagreement about how important it was to be in the hardware business,” says Ballmer. “I had pushed Surface, the board had been a little reluctant in supporting it, and things came to a climax about what to do about the phone business.

“We should have been in the hardware business sooner, in the phone case, and we were still suffering what I would call some of the effects of our Vista release of Windows.”
On the subject of phones, Ballmer did pick up on his famous iPhone quote. Which one? This one:

For those without headphones. He said this, while laughing: “500 dollars? Fully subsidised? With a plan? I said that is the most expensive phone in the world. And it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard. Which makes it not a very good email machine.”

He went on to add that “Right now, we’re selling millions and millions and millions of phones a year. Apple is selling zero phones a year. In six months, they’ll have the most expensive phone by far ever in the marketplace.”

It’s fair to say he got that call wrong, with the benefit of hindsight. And he accepts that, telling Chang: “I wish I had thought of the model of subsidising phones through the operators. People like to point to this quote where I said the iPhones will never sell. Well, the price of $600 or $700 was too high and it was business-model innovation by Apple to get it essentially built into the monthly cell phone bill.”

Despite this, it’s pretty clear that Ballmer has few regrets, looking back on his career. “I started a company that had about two-and-a-half million of revenue and 30 people, and I left a company that had 22 billion in profit. And I feel like net-net: pretty good success.”

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