A good chunk of Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Steve Jobs focuses on Microsoft and Bill Gates.
In the book, he characterizes former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates as “a business person” but not someone who necessarily made great products: “He ended up the wealthiest guy around, and if that was his goal, then he achieved it. But it’s never been my goal, and I wonder, in the end, if it was his goal.”
In the same passage, he also discussed Microsoft as a company. “They’ve clearly fallen from their dominance,” he said. “They’ve become mostly irrelevant. And yet I appreciate what they did and how hard it was. They were very good at the business side of things. They were never as ambitious product-wise as they should have been.”
Microsoft, of course, would strenuously disagree with those assertions. The latest edition of Windows has sold more than 450 million licenses, and the company continues to maintain a dominant position in business software. While the jury’s still out with regard to its cloud efforts as revenue generators, platforms such as Office 365 are making inroads against Google and other companies in that area.
But Apple has framed itself as primarily a mobility company, with products such as the tablet and smartphone, and that area has also proven troublesome for Microsoft. Windows Phone has attracted critical praise but not enough sales to dent either the Apple iPhone or the growing family of Google Android devices; and Microsoft remains largely absent from the tablet game until the launch of Windows 8 sometime in 2012.
Jobs also had some things to say about current Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. “When the sales guys run the company, the product guys don’t matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off,” he said. “It happened at Apple when Sculley came in, which was my fault, and it happened when Ballmer took over at Microsoft.” As a consequence, “I don’t think anything will change at Microsoft as long as Ballmer is running it.”
Microsoft’s efforts with Windows 8 (particularly when it comes to tablets) and its revamped Windows Phone strategy (which involves a host of new manufacturing partners, including Nokia, in conjunction with the wide-ranging “Mango” software update) will determine whether Jobs’ prophecy plays out. If those efforts succeed in a big way, then Microsoft could have a turnaround story in mobility to rival Apple’s own. If they fail, then Redmond has some very serious problems.
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