January 15, 2000
Ballmer or Bullmer, Microsoft's Chief Settles Into New Role
By JOHN MARKOFF
EATTLE, Jan. 14 -- At the lectern on
his first day as chief executive of the
world's most powerful software company,
Steven A. Ballmer slapped his hands together loudly for emphasis. But only once.
By any account, such a performance is
low key for Mr. Ballmer, who on Thursday
was named to succeed his longtime business partner and best friend, William H.
Gates, as Microsoft's chief executive. Mr.
Gates will remain the company's chairman and focus on shaping Microsoft's software strategy.
Mr. Ballmer, who has been president of
Microsoft for a year and a half, is known
for his fist-pounding, bellowing, bombastic
Dan Lamont/Corbis Sygma, for The New York Times
Steven A. Ballmer at a news conference on Thursday after William H.
Gates named him to take over as chief executive of Microsoft. ``They're
two halves of the same person,'' another executive said of the two men.
Though some suspect it is one of the
most finely honed acts in the industry, no
one disputes the passion he brings to his
role as the industry's supersalesman.
And no one disputes his intensity.
Once in an interview, Mr. Ballmer gesticulated so wildly that he struck his forehead with his fingernail hard enough to
draw blood. Apparently unfazed, he continued talking while dabbing at his wound.
Mr. Ballmer is stepping forward to guide
Microsoft's day-to-day business with the
company under an array of competitive
and legal assaults. It is only the latest
challenge Mr. Gates has laid before him in
his 20 years at Microsoft, from managing
the company's software relationship with
I.B.M. in the 1980's to taking responsibility
for a "holy war" to heighten customer
satisfaction over the last three years.
Because of the special chemistry that
has marked the business partnership between Mr. Ballmer, 43, and Mr. Gates, 44,
few expect the change in leadership to have
a noticeable effect on Microsoft's operations or its strategic direction.
Central to that chemistry is the complementary nature of the two men's passions.
Mr. Ballmer is the consummate business
manager, thriving on operational details,
while Mr. Gates takes legendary delight in
pushing forward new technologies and
plunging into arcana.
"They're two halves of the same person," said a Microsoft executive who has
worked closely with them for years.
"Together they constitute the finest
business executive in the world."
Investors showed no apprehension
about the change today, with Microsoft shares rising $4.4375, to $112.25,
recouping losses earlier in the week,
on a generally strong day for technology stocks.
Several years ago Mr. Gates and
Mr. Ballmer said they had made a
"gut check" and agreed they were
committed to Microsoft at least until
they reached 50. On Thursday, both
said nothing had changed about that
Other Microsoft executives who
have spent years with the two men
say it is the trust they built first as
college friends that has distinguished
their collaboration over the years.
"They're still best friends," said
Michael Swaine, co-author of "Fire
in the Valley: The Making of the
Personal Computer" (McGraw Hill,
2000). "These guys were college pals,
and after poker games at Harvard,
Gates would stay up describing the
games to Ballmer. In turn Ballmer
got Gates to join a men's club to
smoke cigars and wear a tuxedo."
Indeed, unlike the high school
friends Steven P. Jobs and Stephen
Wozniak, who founded Apple Computer in 1976 but have grown more
distant since the 1970's, Mr. Ballmer
and Mr. Gates have grown only closer over the years.
No one doubts the
passion that this
to his job.
In an interview on Thursday with a
small group of reporters after the
announcement, they frequently completed each other's thoughts.
After Mr. Gates said he would
probably continue to kibitz by e-mail
on day-to-day issues confronting Microsoft, Mr. Ballmer laughed and,
sounding a bit like Martha Stewart,
said, "Reading e-mail from Bill is a
So it is not at all unusual for Mr.
Ballmer to step in to help lift the load
from Mr. Gates. It has been a troubled time for the software executive
and world's richest man. (His 15
percent share of Microsoft is worth
about $88 billion, while Mr. Ballmer's
5 percent share is worth about $29
billion.) With the government antitrust case threatening both the company and his own reputation, Mr.
Gates has described 1999 as "the
worst year in my life" to confidants
With the company under siege, Mr.
Ballmer has often led the counterattack with enthusiasm and gusto.
Moreover, though Mr. Ballmer has
a reputation as "the sales guy," he
actually has the technical credentials to match Mr. Gates. He majored
in applied mathematics at Harvard,
and part of the pair's original bond
was that they were both "math
nerds" who stood out even among
the best and brightest.
Mr. Ballmer loves to tell of how he
outscored Mr. Gates in several crucial mathematics and economics
tests. (Although Mr. Gates dropped
out of Harvard to start Microsoft
with his childhood friend Paul Allen,
Mr. Ballmer stayed on to graduate
and then joined Procter & Gamble,
where he began his business career
test-marketing cake mixes.)
Mr. Ballmer's intellectual prowess
has made it possible for him to step
in and oversee the company's software development efforts at various
crucial times. Now, with him as chief
executive, even longtime competitors say they believe that the new
division of labor will free both men to
do what they each do best.
"This is giving Steve the platform
to do what he does really well," said
Gordon Eubanks, a longtime Microsoft competitor and president and
chief executive of Oblix Inc., an electronic-business software company in
Cupertino, Calif. "Until now it was
complicated by the fact that Bill still
had to do things, and it's very complicated for two people to share the day-to-day management of a company."
One thing that few people believe
will change is Microsoft's aggressive
nature, which has earned Mr.
Ballmer the industry nickname of
the Embalmer. He has carried on a
particularly spirited public rivalry
with the chief executive of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, a fellow
Detroit native and Harvard acquaintance with one of the industry's
But whatever his bluster or tactical bombast, Mr. Ballmer embodies
the disciplined persistence that has
marked Microsoft since its inception,
coupled with a sense of humor.
Many years ago, after a reporter
misspelled his last name as
"Bullmer" in an article about an
early version of the company's Windows operating system, Mr. Ballmer
highlighted the error in a celebration
of the product at a trade show. He
noted that it was just one additional
bug in a troubled product the company was intent on improving.