The Lost Decade: Why Steve Ballmer Is No Bill Gates

Last month Microsoft rolled out Windows 7 and opened the first of a chain of new retail stores. As usual with such announcements, there's been loads of hoopla and ginned-up excitement. But mostly people are just relieved. Windows 7 replaces Vista, one of the most disastrous tech products ever. It also caps the end of a decade in which Microsoft's founder, Bill Gates, stepped aside, and the company lost its edge.

Ten years ago, when Gates appointed his longtime second in command, Steve Ballmer, as his replacement as CEO, Microsoft was still the meanest, mightiest tech company in the world, a juggernaut that bullied friends and foes alike and which possessed an operating-system franchise that was practically a license to print money. Techies likened Microsoft to the Borg on Star Trek, the evil collective that insatiably assimilates everything around it, with the slogan, "Resistance is futile."

That was then. Now, instead of being scary, Microsoft has become a bit of a joke. Yes, its Windows operating system still runs on more than 90 percent of PCs, and the Office application suite rules the desktop. But those are old markets. In new areas, Microsoft has stumbled.