From Vanity Fair:
Once upon a time, Microsoft dominated the tech industry; indeed, it was the wealthiest corporation in the world. But since 2000, as Apple, Google, and Facebook whizzed by, it has fallen flat in every arena it entered: e-books, music, search, social networking, etc., etc. Talking to former and current Microsoft executives, Kurt Eichenwald finds the fingers pointing at C.E.O. Steve Ballmer, Bill Gates’s successor, as the man who led them astray.
To the saccharine rhythm of a Muzak clip, Steve Ballmer crouched into a tackling stance and dashed across a ballroom stage at the Venetian Las Vegas. A 20-foot wall of video screens flashed his name as the 55-year-old Microsoft chief executive bear-hugged Ryan Seacrest, the ubiquitous television and radio host, who had just introduced Ballmer’s keynote speech for the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show.
More than 150,000 techies and executives were swarming the city’s hotels last January in the annual bacchanalia of cutting-edge gizmos and gadgets. Attendees ran from one vendor to the next, snapping up fistfuls of freebies, inhaling flavored oxygen, and rubbing elbows with stars such as LL Cool J and Justin Bieber.
But this night, an air of discomfort filled the Palazzo Ballroom, where Ballmer was about to give the show’s opening presentation, one delivered by Microsoft’s C.E.O. for 14 of the previous 17 years—the first 11 by Bill Gates and the rest by Ballmer. Weeks earlier, the company had declared that this would be its final keynote—and, worse, that it wouldn’t even be back next year as an exhibitor to showcase new innovations. The timing for big news about its products, it said, didn’t match that of the annual high-tech pageant.
Rumors had swirled throughout the day that Ballmer planned to go out in a blaze of glory, offering a peek at a yet-to-be-released stunner from a company whose recent innovations had too often been lackluster or worse. Instead, what emerged was a gonzo spectacle, structured as a confab between Seacrest and Ballmer. Cookie Monster showed up, as did a gospel choir that belted out a bizarre song composed entirely of random tweets shot into cyberspace by who-the-hell-knows.
As for announcements of quantum leaps into the technological future: nothing. Ballmer applauded the still-long-awaited Windows 8 operating system (which as of this writing is available only as a release preview online). He burbled about his expectations for Xbox, the game console that successfully competed with Sony PlayStation. Out came Windows Phone 7 again, which, despite widespread praise from users, had experienced bleak sales results. A demo followed, which proved an embarrassment; the device’s voice-to-text messaging failed and then another glitch forced a Microsoft staffer to reach for a different phone. The media response was dismal—the company’s last presentation, a prominent blogger wrote, was a “cruel joke.”
Microsoft’s low-octane swan song was nothing if not symbolic of more than a decade littered with errors, missed opportunities, and the devolution of one of the industry’s innovators into a “me too” purveyor of other companies’ consumer products. Over those years, inconsequential pip-squeaks and onetime zombies—Google, Facebook, Apple—roared ahead, transforming the social-media-tech experience, while a lumbering Microsoft relied mostly on pumping out Old Faithfuls such as Windows, Office, and servers for its financial performance.
Amid a dynamic and ever changing marketplace, Microsoft—which declined to comment for this article—became a high-tech equivalent of a Detroit car-maker, bringing flashier models of the same old thing off of the assembly line even as its competitors upended the world. Most of its innovations have been financial debacles or of little consequence to the bottom line. And the performance showed on Wall Street; despite booming sales and profits from its flagship products, in the last decade Microsoft’s stock barely budged from around $30, while Apple’s stock is worth more than 20 times what it was 10 years ago. In December 2000, Microsoft had a market capitalization of $510 billion, making it the world’s most valuable company. As of June it is No. 3, with a market cap of $249 billion. In December 2000, Apple had a market cap of $4.8 billion and didn’t even make the list. As of this June it is No. 1 in the world, with a market cap of $541 billion.
How did this jaw-dropping role reversal happen? How could a company that stands among the most cash-rich in the world, the onetime icon of cool that broke IBM’s iron grip on the computer industry, have stumbled so badly in a race it was winning?
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