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Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in January. (Microsoft photo)

It’s easy to criticize Steve Ballmer’s tenure as CEO of Microsoft. The stagnant share price, the Windows Vista debacle, the huge missed opportunities in tablets and smartphones.

But is it fair to call him “the worst CEO of a large publicly traded American company today”?

That’s the assessment of business consultant Adam Hartung, a Forbes contributor who puts Ballmer at the top of his list of CEOs who should have been fired long ago.

Hartung writes, “Without a doubt, Mr. Ballmer is the worst CEO of a large publicly traded American company today. Not only has he singlehandedly steered Microsoft out of some of the fastest growing and most lucrative tech markets (mobile music, handsets and tablets) but in the process he has sacrificed the growth and profits of not only his company but ‘ecosystem’ companies such as Dell, Hewlett Packard and even Nokia.  The reach of his bad leadership has extended far beyond Microsoft when it comes to destroying shareholder value – and jobs.”

He continues, “By Mr. Ballmer’s own admission Vista had over 200 man-years too much cost, and its launch, years late, met users avoiding upgrades. Microsoft 7 and Office 2012 did nothing to excite tech users, in corporations or at home, as Apple took the leadership position in personal technology.”

And he concludes, “Microsoft is still the same company Mr. Ballmer took control over a decade ago.  Microsoft is (a) PC company, nothing more, as demand for PCs shifts to mobile.”

The biggest hole in Hartung’s argument is that he doesn’t acknowledge Microsoft’s successes during Ballmer’s tenure, including the rise of SharePoint, and the continued growth of core products such as Microsoft Office, SQL Server and Windows Server. More glaring is his omission of the Xbox business, which has given Microsoft a large foothold in the living room, putting the company in an enviable position as one of the major platforms for entertainment.

Not to mention the company’s investment in Facebook, which continues to give Microsoft Bing an edge over Google in combining search and social networking.

Windows Vista was a huge mess, and the distraction contributed to the rest of the company’s problems, but many would argue that “Microsoft 7” — a.k.a. Windows 7 — has actually been a success for the company, at least in terms of getting the flagship operating back on track.

In the past, Ballmer has tried to address this issue by demonstrating his enthusiasm for the company. “YOU TELL ME if I lack energy or conviction, or we’re not driving all the change we need to drive!” he bellowed last year at the Seattle Rotary Club in response to a question about calls for his dismissal.

Employee surveys by give Ballmer consistently low ratings among Microsoft’s rank-and-file.

But should Ballmer be fired? Ultimately, it’s up to the people who own the company to make this assessment. Lots of Microsoft shareholders have expressed similar opinions over the years, although not enough to actually force the board to give Ballmer the axe. The catch is that Ballmer owns almost 4 percent of the company, and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates owns more than 6 percent.

Ballmer has said he plans to stick around until his youngest kid goes to college, which would keep him in the CEOs office until at least 2017 — unless Hartung’s piece incites a shareholder revolt.

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