Microsoft’s CEO talks about his company—and the high-tech future
No one can accuse the guys at Microsoft of not having fun, even with the Damocles’ sword of a court-ordered breakup of the company hanging over them. Addressing the Comdex computer exposition in Toronto last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed a video in which he played a bald Dr. Evil-style leader next to a bewigged Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, complete with mini-skirted Sixties babes, in Austin Gates: International Man of Technology. A second skit featured Gates and wealthy financier Warren Buffett appearing before television’s fudge Judy in a dispute over an online bridge game. Ballmer also made fun of a report last month that Microsoft might move to Canada to avoid a breakup.
The ever-ebullient CEO’s message couldn’t have been clearer: despite the U.S. government’s antitrust suit, now under appeal, it’s full speed ahead for the company as it champions Microsoft.NET, its ambitious, evolving system to bring information from all over the Web together in one place and on a variety of devices—and including, naturally, Microsoft software online. During his visit, Ballmer, 44, talked with Assistant Managing Editor Berton Woodward and Editor at Large Anthony Wilson-Smith about his company—and the future. Excerpts:
Maclean’s: Allow us to ask you again: would you like to move to Canada?
Ballmer: Canada's a wonderful country, but Microsoft’s clearly staying in Seattle. I did have a vacation last year in Jasper [Alta.], and we’re going up to Quebec on vacation this year as a family. But I’m a proud American citizen and I have great faith in the judicial systems working properly—eventually.
Maclean’s: What innovations do you see in the next three to five years? How will life change for the ordinary person?
Ballmer: The basic user interface to the PC and the Internet will evolve in the next three to five years. It will not be just a browser, it will not be just the PC the way we use it today. You’ll use voice, you’ll use speech, you’ll use handwriting recognition. Today, you can’t just say, ‘I want the information about the speech I did at Comdex Canada in 1997.’ The computer wouldn’t understand it. So we’ll see a basic evolution where the computer will not only recognize my voice, it will recognize my intent. I think that’s a huge transformation. And we’re not just talking about the PC, but phones and other devices.
And there’ll be a transformation where, in some senses, the user experience will go from being Web site-centric to being really individual-centric. Suppose in the world of tomorrow, I want to be able to go to the Internet, book a trip to visit my sister and be done with it. I will expect the Internet to put my arrival time on my sister’s schedule, if she’s willing, and to contact my sister when my airplane is late, in whatever way she wants to be contacted. If she wants to be paged, great, if she wants to be phoned, great. It’s hard to create that application today, but that’s the way the Internet should work tomorrow.
Maclean’s: How will Microsoft make money from that?
Ballmer: Oh, I think there’s lots of ways to make money selling the infrastructure to companies to build those Web sites, selling advanced services to consumers that they would pay for on a monthly basis. I don’t believe the Internet will always be advertising funded. I do believe that users will pay subscription fees for valuable services on the Internet and so I see that as a world of opportunity. When you put the user in control, the user’s going to be willing to pay for the features and benefits.
Maclean’s:Some say this all means you are once again trying to dominate the Internet. What’s your response?
Ballmer: Nobody’s going to dominate the Internet. The question is, can anybody build services that benefit a large percentage of people? And if the accusation is we’re trying to build products that are going to be very popular, then I stand before you, pleading guilty to that.
Maclean’s:Microsofi.NET involves both the operating system and the applications, which the court wants to separate. What happens if the company is broken up?
Ballmer: The amount of innovation people would see from Microsoft would be substantively less.
Maclean’s:What impact has the lawsuit had on the company?
Ballmer: Well, it’s certainly not a pleasant experience. I wouldn’t wish it on any of my friends. But our people still come to work every day, they still want to do innovative work, they still want to build popular products, so in a core sense, I think, nothing has changed. If anything, it’s made everybody think doubly hard about our company and what’s good about it, and kind of rededicate ourselves.
Maclean’s:Are your people drawing up a Plan B, in case the company is broken up?
Maclean’s:You took over from Bill Gates as CEO six months ago. What do you see as the differences between the way you and he run the company?
Ballmer: It’s probably not exactly the right question, in the sense that we’re both still at the company. It’s not like there was a problem and we changed management. We wanted Bill to be able to focus in on the technical architecture of our product line. He’s able to do that. Now, I’m not Bill Gates, I can’t really understand the depth of the technology in the way Bill does, but I have a little bit more focus on some other things. As Bill said, in the old days it was easy for him to be dictatorial. We’re going to do this, we’re not going to do that, da-doot-da-doot-da-doo.’ I can’t do that. I have to work things through and do things with a little bit more team involvement.
Maclean’s:And what do you think this produces as an end result?
Ballmer: Well, I think a company that can last long term. I mean, if you build a company that has to depend on having somebody of the caliber of Bill Gates to run it, the likelihood that you’ll find the next Bill Gates to run it is?. .. Pretty small.
Maclean’s:Getting back to the future, what’s a typical house going to look like in 10 years, in terms of interactivity and the Web?
Ballmer: I think a family of four will probably have 20 devices, minimum, all connected together on a home network. You’ll probably have a PC by then for every member of the family.
Ballmer: I think most of them will have keyboards. Even then, even though you can talk to the computer, there are actually things you can do faster sometimes the other way. And you probably have three televisions someplace in the house—each of those would have an intelligent device. If you have a 12-year old, I guarantee you, you’d have some kind of video game console which would probably be integrated with a set-top box by then. You probably would have a security camera around the house, or just a monitoring cam in the nursery so you can keep track—is the baby OK? You’ll have telephones connected in. Twenty or so devices that are all connected into your home network and that you speak to, talk to, type on, write on, etcetera.
Maclean’s:Do you see the future being a mix of wireless and wired devices, or will everything migrate to wireless as the capacity for handling data expands?
Ballmer: It’s not a technology question, really. There’s a lot of advantages to wireless, there’s a lot of advantages to wired, and it’s a question of who figures out how to make money what way. And in some countries, I bet it’s all wireless and other countries, I bet it’s all wired, and I suspect in North America it’ll be a jumble of the two.
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