Good, eh? Mr Ballmer, the man who took over from Bill Gates at the helm of the least fashionable technology company in the world, ever, announced his departure from Microsoft at the weekend. Almost immediately the share price soared and with tech nous like that, well, you can sort of see why.
“And?” you may be thinking. “What of it? We don’t come to this column for business analysis. We come for cheap gags about things like the weird hairlessness of David Cameron, as seen on a Cornwall beach! Followed by wide-eyed musings about the human condition! What’s got into you, Rifkind?” To which, all I can say is: bear with me. For, while I fear this column will, indeed, be low on references to the weird hairlessness of David Cameron (unless one fortuitously occurs to me before I get to the end) it is very much to be a wide-eyed musing on the human condition.
The iPhone, produced by Microsoft’s great rival, Apple, came out in 2007, a year after Mr Ballmer was left to his own devices (literally) by Gates. Today it does not have 2 or 3 per cent of the global smartphone market, as he predicted, but something closer to 20 per cent. Around half of all tablets — and more if you don’t count China, where things are a bit weird and different — are iPads. And that’s just the hardware. Meanwhile, on the software front, Google has gone supernova.
Everything that Microsoft has attempted to do about this has been disastrous. Nobody you know ever bought a Zune instead of an iPod. Nobody you know has a Windows smartphone. Or a Windows tablet. Indeed, by some calculations, the company has around six million of the things sitting unsold in warehouses. Nobody you know uses Bing instead of Google. And while (very) careful timing could have made a fortune for investors in Apple, Facebook or Google, until now Microsoft’s share price had hardly done anything interesting in a decade. Dullsburgh. Yesterdaysville. Corporate disaster.
It’s a strange sort of corporate disaster, though, that makes as much money as Microsoft. The figures mean little to me, so I shan’t burden you with many, but the company rakes in vast profits each year ($6.06 billion in the last quarter) and these profits are growing, not shrinking. It does this by selling most of the software that runs everything that is too boring for you to want to think about, such as the computer you sit at every day in your office and probably your home PC. And what is fascinating is why anybody would ever have felt that this was not enough.
Ballmer, I think, will be remembered as an archetypal example of a bizarre early-2000s phenomenon, which is the fist-pumping, crowd-wowing, messianically posing CEO. Because, bless him, he really tried. He did all the crowd-pleasing things that Steve Jobs had done, but in his case nobody cared. Your toaster-maker has never needed a public face, nor the manufacturer of your fridge. IT companies, though, are different. Or at least they were.
In part this is probably the fault of Jobs, although “fault” may be the wrong word here, because as well as posing as a visionary genius, he actually was one. Ridicule the self-congratulatory smugness of Apple all you like, but Jobs through his products actually did help to redesign the architecture of the human experience. Man, the sentences Apple makes you write. But he did. Likewise Bill Gates, likewise the Google guys. Likewise to a lesser degree Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook. Maybe a handful of others.
What they all did, though, was conflate their vision with their commercial success. They asked us to whoop at both, just the same. And because of them we’ve grown used to assuming that there’s nothing weird or grandiose or downright fundamentally egotistically deluded about a technology company behaving like a religion. Shareholders and users alike expected every little tech religion to have a high priest. You weren’t just supposed to buy. You were supposed to buy in.
Post Steve Jobs it all suddenly seems a bit silly. Two years ago Peter Thiel, one of the co-founders of PayPal, criticised the way that the internet boom had turned creative minds inwards rather than outwards. “I don’t consider this to be a technological breakthrough,” he declared, waving an iPhone at a journalist forThe New Yorker. “Compare this with the Apollo space programme.”
In a most un-Jobsian fashion, since then internet entrepreneurs have started looking for legacies outside the Cloud. Bill Gates, as you’ll know, is trying to cure malaria. Elon Musk, Mr Thiel’s PayPal collaborator, is trying to invent a sort of high-speed transport tube, like the one in the credits of Futurama. Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, has bought The Washington Post. Google’s Sergey Brin is funding the test-tube burger. Merely being cheered by geeks and investors is no longer enough for these people. There’s a sense that the humanity-changing frontiers of the internet’s Wild West are by now pretty much established. There’s nothing left to whoop at.
Mr Ballmer, despite clearly being an incredibly able businessman, was never worth whooping at. He is a manager, not a visionary. Microsoft probably changed the world as much as any technology company, but not since about 1996. Rather, he ought to function as a sort of technology elder statesman, showing the Facebooks and Googles of the world what you do next. Before long, after all, we won’t want to whoop at any of them. The internet revolution can’t keep being a revolution for ever and our excitement will be redirected elsewhere.
According to an article I read yesterday, the next big thing is robotics. “Meet Roxxxy, the sex robot with a triple XXX,” declared the BBC yesterday. Didn’t really do it for me, though. Too weirdly hairless. Like David Cameron.