This has not been the best of weeks for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. First was the news that the company will take a giant $6.2 billion write-down in its Online Services Division, acknowledging that its second-largest acquisition has floundered and its online initiatives aren’t living up to expectations.
And today comes a preview of a Vanity Fair piece by Kurt Eichenwald, two-time winner of the prestigious George Polk Award. The title: “Microsoft’s Lost Decade.”
The actual article isn’t yet available on newsstands or online, but I’ve read an advance copy of the full piece, and it’s pretty epic.
Eichenwald talks with a bunch of former execs and documents Microsoft’s problems during the past decade — including its unsuccessful efforts to compete with Apple’s consumer devices, its stubborn insistence that products revolve around Windows, its massive online losses, the negative repercussions of its stack-ranking system for employee evaluations, and much more.
It’s a well-written tale, and an entertaining read. Unless I’m missing something, Microsoft won’t be able to point to any significant inaccuracies. There aren’t any huge surprises for anyone who has been following the company. The internal emails cited by Eichenwald, for example, have all been made public previously through leaks and court cases. (I felt at times like I was reading a synopsis of stories I wrote years ago.)
However, the piece is not a complete assessment of the company. It feels more like a caricature, highlighting Microsoft’s worst qualities and overlooking the stuff that actually has gone well over the past decade.
The biggest example is Xbox. Microsoft has spent billions to build this business. Some shareholders will contend that this spending wasn’t worth it, but the simple fact is that Microsoft has established an enviable position for itself not just in video games but in digital entertainment. With more than 60 million units sold, the Xbox is not just a hobby but the kind of presence that a company such as Apple would love to have in the living room. The Xbox is mentioned only in passing in the piece.
Many of the anecdotes also feel outdated. There’s lots of talk of Longhorn, for example, but not Kinect. No real mention of SharePoint or other Microsoft successes in business software and servers. Despite the length of the piece, and the extensive research and interviews, the reader doesn’t walk away with a full picture.
In that way, it doesn’t feel like a fair portrayal.
Microsoft didn’t cooperate with the story, which may be one reason it turned out the way it did, but it’s not like that stuff was a secret.
In the end, should Ballmer go? Eichenwald’s assessment might come as a surprise.
He writes in the conclusion to the piece, “Ballmer may be invaluable for the company’s future. Because the time may be coming when the sprawling Microsoft empire will have to be busted up, like any other company that has spread itself too thin into too many product lines. And a deal-maker like Ballmer is just the type to lead that kind of massive corporate reorganization.”
I’ll link to the full piece when it’s available online.