Drumbeats: The Tech Press Turns on Microsoft's Ballmer

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer speaks in New York to kick off Windows 7 on October 22, 2009 Timothy A. Clary / AFP-Getty Images

Microsoft has a problem—a big one. The problem is not just that its CEO, Steve Ballmer, has had a disastrous 10-year run. That's been obvious for a while now, as I first pointed out last October in a piece titled "The Lost Decade—Why Steve Ballmer is no Bill Gates."

It even prompted me to predict, last fall, that Ballmer would get pushed out of Microsoft this year.

That wasn't a popular position at the time. Microsoft's head of PR called my piece a "hit job on Steve," and told me all the ways I was wrong and stupid and off the mark. Then he pretty much stopped communicating with me.

I figured he was just in denial, or maybe just saying what he needed to say because he was getting paid to say it.

But my goodness, how much difference a year makes—because these days everyone seems to be piling on Ballmer. And that poor PR guy has a much bigger problem on his hands.

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The challenge Microsoft faces now isn't really about the facts. The facts are the facts are the facts, and they've been the same for a long time.

What has changed is the story people are choosing to tell with those facts.

For some reason, a lot of people now are saying that Ballmer needs to go.

The catalyst seems to be the fact that Apple's market value just surged past Microsoft's, a moment that The New York Times marked with a devastating infographic comparing the performance of the two stocks over the past decade.

Fast Company says Microsoft needs to get Bill Gates back in charge, pronto, and asks, regarding the Windows Vista fiasco, "Can you think of any other tech firm where the CEO could bungle the company's main product and still keep his job?"

Fortune magazine's Adam Lashinsky pens an incredibly candid piece titled "Steve Ballmer doesn't get it," describing Ballmer's uninspiring performance at the D8 tech conference last week where Ballmer displayed what Lashinsky calls "more out-to-lunchness than I've ever heard from a major CEO."

Lashinsky's piece in particular represents a kind of sharp criticism we don't read very often in the tech press.

Oddly enough, a lot of this backlash has been brought on by Microsoft's PR operation itself.

You simply can't underperform and miss new markets for 10 years but at the same time keep insisting that everything is great, business is great, Microsoft is great, our profits are great. You just can't do that and expect people to take you seriously.

And so now some members of the tech press, who used to live in fear of Microsoft, have decided they're just going to say whatever they want to say.

For my pal the Microsoft PR guy this represents a dangerous situation and a damning assessment of the Microsoft communications operation.

What journalists like Lashinsky are saying, by implication, is that they're not afraid of having their access cut off, because they no longer believe that access is worth anything, because these days it's hard, perhaps impossible, to imagine that any top executive at Microsoft would have anything to say other than the same old rubbish and spin.

In other words, not only is Ballmer is a disaster, but so is your storytelling.

And so, unfettered by fear, the pundits are beating the drums, saying Ballmer needs to go.

Of course, even when journalists get a little rough, they're nothing compared to developers and bloggers. Those guys say whatever they want because they're not worried about not getting that next big interview with the CEO.

Jean-Louis Gassée, a former Apple executive, recently blogged that Ballmer needs to go, though he doubts that Microsoft's toothless board of directors can bring themselves to pull the trigger.

The most vicious rip on Ballmer comes from developer David Heinemeier Hansson, who says that while Gates was an evil genius, Ballmer is "certainly no genius and calling him evil is to belittle evil."

Business Insider ripped Ballmer for his performance at D8 and said his main problem is he's not a product guy—even setting up a poll asking whether Ballmer is the right person to lead Microsoft. As of this morning, 76 percent have said no.

And how is Microsoft PR handling this brazen barrage of bad coverage? Well, when they're not repeating the same old "We're totally doing great" talking points, they've resorted to attacking journalists. Recently Microsoft's head PR guy used his Twitter account to mock the Financial Times over an article that Microsoft didn't like—a move that I guess was meant to seem cheeky but instead made Microsoft look petty and, worse yet, weak.

Well, great work on that one. You stay classy, Redmond.