This week such noted guests as Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan and Jeff Bezos — chairman, president and CEO, Amazon.com — landed in Redmond, Washington for the annual Microsoft CEO Summit. Unsurprisingly, the keynote speech was given by none other than the CEO of the world's largest tech company and protege of tech pioneer Bill Gates, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer.
Ballmer is one of the most energetic and influential figures in the tech industry. He is also known as one of the most polarizing, for his wild antics and unscripted sound bytes. Thus you could virtually guarantee his keynote would be pretty interesting.
At the speech Ballmer let his fellow CEOs exactly how he viewed Windows Vista -- an overambitious product botched by a poor launch and poor timing. He stated, "Just not executed well. Not the product itself, but we went a gap of about five, six years without a product. I think back now and I think about thousands of man-hours, and it wasn't because we were wrong-minded in thinking bad thoughts and not pushing innovation. We tried too big a task, and in the process wound up losing essentially thousands of man-hours of innovation capabilities."
The admission was surprisingly forthright, when contrast with Ballmer's early statements on Vista's performance. Initially, despite poor sales Ballmer blamed factors such as piracy, refusing to blame Vista. As time has passed he has slowly grown more critical of Vista. Of course the operating system is no longer Microsoft's flagship product, so that could have something to do with his changing attitude as well.
Many analysts have been highly critical of Windows Vista's performance. The OS came at a $6B USD research and development cost to Microsoft, yet failed to come anywhere close to surpassing its predecessor, Windows XP, in market share.
The upside to that flop, though, was a rich operating system base that allowed Microsoft to push out Windows 7 -- essentially a performance tuned Vista with some extra gloss. Windows 7, by contrast, has been a wild hit, passing Windows Vista in seven months and cruising towards passing Windows XP. While that success can't entirely numb the sting of Vista among Microsoft's brass, it does provide a degree of vindication of their overall strategy.
Despite his candor about Vista, Ballmer had no qualms about saying that the super-hot selling Android smart phone operating system from Google was inferior to Microsoft's own smart phone operating systems.
In an interview with Fortune Ballmer commented, "I think what you mostly what you see in the market is that there's a lot of dynamism. You know, people are up, they're down, they're sideways, they're this. The whole market is growing. But, in terms of share and popularity there's still a lot of opportunities for innovation."
"And I think Apple did some good stuff, but they're not number one in the market. You know, number one is still Nokia, number two is still RIM. And they did some good stuff. And you know Android is done more of a... Google has done more of a software only approach. Which has advantages. That's our approach. They hit the market with a good window relative to touch."
When asked about Android giving away Android for free versus Microsoft, which charges smart phone carriers, Ballmer took issue with that assessment, stating, "And there's nothing free about Android. I mean at the end of the day as we certainly have asserted in a number of cases you know there's an intellectual property royalty due on that. Whether they happen to charge for their software or not is their business decision."
Ultimately Ballmer is right -- Android isn't free. It's certainly an expensive project for Google. However, it's hard to deny that Ballmer essentially dodged the question. At the end of the day Android is free to handset makers and consumers. That answer would be a tough one for Ballmer to give, though, when the upcoming Windows Phone 7 comes with a fee, which is ultimately passed down to the consumer. And then there's the additional fact that Android currently has some abilities that Windows Mobile does not, like copy and paste and multi-tasking. Ballmer's response, while technically correct, thus left plenty unsaid.