When I appeared on CBC Newsworld last week to talk about Bill Gates' departure from Microsoft, they asked me whether I thought the company can survive without him. I tried not to roll my eyes.
"I realize there's a temptation to identify with the founder of a company," I said, "but he's put a good succession plan in place. Ford Motor Co. managed to survive without Henry Ford, and I think Microsoft will survive without Bill Gates."
I barely mentioned Steve Ballmer, because I wasn't sure how well he would be recognized by a mainstream audience. Although he's a familiar face within corporate IT departments, I'd argue he's still not a household name. Here are a few of the things he needs to do next, whether he ever becomes one or not.
1. Make user education a corporate mission. We all know there are more features in Word, Excel and Windows itself that customers simply do not understand. As a result, they spend too much time and energy working around problems Microsoft's products already solve. Ballmer should invest some marketing dollars in a "Did You Know That Windows Can . . ." campaign that highlights the work Microsoft's developers have done.
2. Don't leave the technical vision to Ray Ozzie. The former Groove Networks leader is capable of great insight into technology trends and writing extremely long staff memos, but it should be Ballmer who most clearly articulates the kind of computing environments Microsoft wants to help customers build in the next decade. The last thing he should want is to be seen as merely the sales guy. As Steve Jobs proves, you don't have to write code to offer some inspiring thoughts on the management of information. Even Gates left too much of the heavy lifting to his subordinates during keynotes. Ballmer should try to change that.
3. Open yourself up as a case study. It can't be easy running one of the world's largest companies, so Ballmer should be able to provide CIOs and IT managers a unique perspective on how Microsoft uses technology to align itself with business objectives. He should talk about Microsoft walks the walk.
4. Don't bash the competition. Microsoft is still dominant in nearly every market, so it makes no sense for Ballmer to bash Google, Apple or other rivals as he has in the past. Microsoft should be more focused on improving its products and growing its business, not swatting at what, in a market share sense, are still flies. There's no need for the Scott McNealy approach here.
5. Start an open source project. Microsoft has stuck to the same business model for years, but what if its dream team of developers actually reached out to independent ISVs and offered them the same kind of ability to tweak future products as Mozilla does with Firefox, or the way Linux evolves? The company doesn't even need to release the result as a commercial product (call it "Office Sandbox," for example) but it would help the company start the kind of positive grassroots following it needs. The whole "shared source" strategy has only gone so far. And although it has released thousands of documentation around Windows and Office already, it needs to communicate something about the difference that's made to the industry.