The problem with Microsoft is in this office

Gary Rivlin, writing for Fortune, wrote a super article on Microsoft’s problem. As a hefty hint of the contents the editors placed a large photo of Steve Ballmer under the headline.

But more telling to me was this shot later in the article, of Steve in his office.

It’s an office stuck in the 90s, and the early 90s at that. The screen on his computer is tiny, and there is only one. The desk is ugly and small. The wall-board is ugly and large. The chair is ugly, probably not very ergonomically sound and also large.

(It’s not even as nice as my own office at home. I’m writing this while sitting on a Life Chair, looking at two screens, one of which is a 30 inch, and the other the 11 inch MacBook Air that is driving the big screen. The view behind the screens isn’t as nice, but only because I’m facing the wall rather than outside. Would Ballmer ever have this kind of set-up?)

Steve isn’t sitting with the troops, but is stuck away in a corner. That physical isolation makes it harder to really understand what’s going on. It may not feel as ‘important’ to be mixing it up outside to some, but open plan offices foster collaboration and fast moving decision making with lots of people involved.

What does Steve Jobs’ office look like?

AllAboutSteveJobs has some shots from 2004 of his home office. It’s a creative space, with a large screen, video camera for iChatting, on a desk stashed with papers in a bit of a man cave, and surrounded by an appropriate mix of books and creative objects.  It feels like a place where interesting work gets done, and it feels ahead of its time in 2004.

Steve Ballmer killed a promising competitor to the iPad, and killed it because it didn’t run Windows. That’s an appalling decision, and the latest of many.

His time has passed, and Microsoft needs to pass the mantle to someone who is a passionate advocate – but not for Microsoft, nor Windows, and nor even for the corporate customers. They need to be a passionate advocate and standard setter for all of us – the end users.

<Update – Bill Gates got it, as this Fortune article passed along from @slyall shows. He had 3 screens in 2006, and used a tablet computer, synced to his desktop, when he moved around.>

Published by Lance Wiggs


19 replies on “The problem with Microsoft is in this office”

  1. Lance.. hmmmm

    I kind of see what you’re getting at here – and I agree with you that Balmer needs to go. But I worry about the danger of using such coarse measures as how funky your office chair is to determine executive worth.

    I’ve not checked out Warren Buffet’s office but would assume it’s got nowhere near the cool-cred that it should have. meanwhile there were a huge number of Aeron chairs going cheap after the dotcom burst.

    You’re smart enough to not have literally intended the “office cool measure” to be definitive, hoping your readership is to…


  2. >> But I worry about the danger of using such coarse measures as how funky your office chair is to determine executive worth


    In fact, the +1 goes to the whole of Ben’s thoughts which match my opinions of this post.

    – JD


  3. I think what Ben is trying to say is that he has the same chair as Steve. But seriously, I agree with Ben that you can’t judge a man purely by the state of his office, but it does draw some interesting parallels in relation to the Fortune article.


    1. Stuart – actually I’m a raised desk guy with an ugly green Architect’s chair picked up cheap from TradeMe. If anyone out there has a Life or Aeron chair that has enough lift for a drafting-desk height workspace, I’m in the market….


  4. Seems appropriate to me. Balmer is a boring business man, who doesn’t seem to be really interested in the technology or the people who will use it. Jobs is a visionary who loves the technology, is inspired by it and what possibilities it presents, and does think about the people who will use it (although his attitude to them as customers is a different story in my book). Balmer just needs to have his spreadsheet running, and he’s happy.


    1. Greg. Warren Buffet is a boring businessman, he’s still exceedingly successful.

      Would you suggest that Balmer should be cool like other successful business people like, oh, Dave Henderson or somesuch?

      Don’t fall into easy stereotypes…


        1. The buyers are not the users. It’s getting to the point that companies with sucky Windows computers are at risk at placing themselves at a disadvantage in their industry.


  5. Back at Mix a few years back Steve Ballmer was interviewed by Guy Kawasaki and was asked to describe his typical day. From what I recall he replied he has 3 types of days 1) flying out and meeting with customers outside of Redmond, 2) full day of back to back meetings with his team in a doctors appointment style and 3) A few meetings/alone time (catching up on emails, research etc)

    Adding in all the conferences/press he does the reality is he’s probably not at that desk too often at all and probably thinks its sufficient to be setup the way it is even though its probably less than ideal and inspiring for most of us.


      1. Lance, I love you to death but.. really?

        The vast majority of MSFT’s income comes from B2B sales. As such of course Balmer does a lot of corporate stuff. Apple is primarily a consumer brand so of course if focused on this aspect of things.

        Secondarily – one could just as easily criticize Jobs for being completely aloof from his customers whereas at least Balmer is more accessible (I’d not argue that but if one wanted to play devil’s advocate one could argue thus)


        1. Ballmer (two l’s btw) may be awesome at being the corporate sales leader, but that still does not solve the underlying problem – the products. Those products are used by people that are not the decision makers at the major corporate customers, and those products have a history of suckiness. It’s seems sadly obvious that Balmer is immersed in using his own products like Bill Gates did, and while energetic sales efforts might help push the lousiness, ultimately the end users will revolt. We saw that end user revolt with the advent of Blackberrys – which used a superior product to break the IT department walls, and we are seeing it now with iPhones, iPads and Macs. We saw it back in the day with PCs, which had to sneak into corporations intent on keeping their entrenched IT investment in IBM mainframes and mini computers. Bill Gates got it – he is a visionary thinker, and back in 2006 had a tablet in his office, 3 screens and, well he’s off solving bigger world problems now.


  6. That must be a publicity shot. The office is a tiny glass box! With so much glass the glare on the LCD would be massive.

    For the CEO of a company earning a bazillion every year, I’d think the office would be the size of small hangar with every toy imaginable. OTOH, if that really is Ballmer’s office, then he’s not very well regarded within M$.


  7. I don’t think Microsoft’s products are any worse than they ever have been. Apple is in a class of its own, and the UI design has inspired a new generation of developers. I think MS’s task is a lot easier said than done. Apple post-Jobs will be interesting.


  8. I dont thing we are comparing apples with apples (excuse the pun)

    Microsoft throws products out there, and lets the consumer fix the problems, which is fast to market method (with plus and minus points) has worked for a while (excluding vista)

    Apple is a product build to (relative)perfection with a massive Buzz when it goes out, while somewhat of a “inbuilt” marketing method (mac owners raving)

    To say I am jealous, is an understatement- seen anybody line up for the next MS Office lately?

    didnt think so…….


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