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Steve Ballmer has made a habit of publicly downplaying competitors right before they eat Microsoft’s lunch. His comments about the iPhone in 2007 will be cited in business school case studies for years to come.

Did he just do it again with Dropbox?

The Microsoft CEO was speaking to Bloomberg Businessweek about the release of the new Office 365 this week when he gave the popular cloud storage service the CEO’s equivalent of a patronizing pat on the head. “They’re a fine little startup and that’s great,” he said, after noting that Dropbox’s 100 million users “sounds like a pretty small number to me” in the context of the estimated 1 billion that use Microsoft Office.

That line in particular is making lots of headlines this morning, of course. It’s not on the level of Ballmer’s iPhone comments six years ago, but the attention on this issue does underscore the rising significance of cloud storage as one of the most critical hubs in our digital lives, and the ability for nimble startups to make an impact by targeting growing market niches.

Dropbox was one of the key apps to arrive Windows 8 following the new operating system’s release. However, Microsoft is also competing in this area with its own SkyDrive service, which is intertwined with the latest Office release to help people move their files across the multiple computers and devices supported by the new Office subscriptions for consumers.

Yes, 1 billion is 10 times 100 million, but Microsoft Office has been around for decades. Dropbox was founded in 2007. The company’s rise is evidence of how quickly the tech world can change. Parts of the tech world, anyway.

Here’s the full interview. The final question is about the status of Office for the iPad. Ballmer declined to give any specifics about Microsoft’s plans.

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