Microsoft's real problem is Ballmer

Microsoft axed two top execs for mobile and entertainment, but giving more control to Ballmer is going to make things worse

Whole lotta shakin' coming from the Redmond, Wash., vicinity, and I'm not talking about an earthquake. Yesterday Steve Ballmer beheaded his president of entertainment and devices, 22-year veteran Microsoftie Robbie Bach. Bach's top design guy, J Allard, went with him, though Allard is apparently being kept on in some vague advisory capacity (probably to keep him out of the hands of Google).

According to Allard, "no chairs were thrown."

[ Cringely also weighs in on the head of Apple, in "Steve Jobs: Savior or tyrant?" | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Note that Bach is claiming this is a "retirement" and was entirely his decision. I'm not buying it. If that were true, they'd have someone new in the wings to replace him, and Microsoft would be rolling out a big sheet cake with Bach's name on it. That didn't happen. This is a sudden, major reorg of a key part of Microsoft's business.

Bach got the boot because Microsoft is taking it in the assets in the mobile space, and the Redmond Behemoth has (belatedly) realized that's where its future lies.

Yes, the Windows Mobile OS sucks harder than an asthmatic at an oxygen bar, but I'm not entirely convinced that's Bach's fault. An interface that's barely tolerable from 18 inches away with a full keyboard and mouse is completely useless on a 2- or 3-inch screen and a teensy keypad. And yet for years Microsoft has insisted on bringing the Windows to Windows Mobile.

Whose vision was that? It wasn't Bach's. Windows on every device? Windows to control your phones and your TVs and the lights in your house? Windows in your car? That belongs to our favorite semi-retired billionaire, the churros-munching, hurricane-battlin' Billy Gates.

So with Bach gone, Steve Ballmer is taking over Microsoft's mobile operations. That's a little like saying, "Son, you crashed the car, so I'm going to hand the car keys to this gorilla and let him drive for a while."

For a change of pace here in Cringeville, let's look at what Microsoft has done right over the last decade. Yes, I know, I might sprain something. But bear with me.

First, the Xbox: What an amazing piece of technology. Too expensive? Yes, especially if you need replacement parts, extra cables, or controllers. That whole Red Ring of Death thing? That was a billion-dollar mistake. But for pure graphical execution and gameplay, it blows everything else away. This is the future of home entertainment. It's still hard to look at one and remember it's a Microsoft product.

The Zune: I gave Microsoft a lot of well-deserved grief for the name (apparently "Zune" sounds a lot like the "F" word in Hebrew, and I don't mean "frankfurter"). But the Zune HD is another impressive piece of technology -- a beautiful, whizzy yet intuitive interface that looks nothing at all like Windows. Yet the Zune has barely gotten into the single digits in terms of market share. Don't blame the technology, blame Apple's stranglehold on the digital content market, Microsoft's inept marketing, and stupid decisions about DRM and the Zune Marketplace.

The new Windows Phone 7 Series seems to be finally abandoning the Windows metaphor and adapting to the form factor of the phone itself. And it's only five years too late.

Project Natal: The no-wands-required, gesture-based interface looks to be a major breakthrough in home gaming. If when it appears later this year it's as good as it initially looks, it will blow the Wii away.

The Courier Tablet, such as it was, got everyone in a tizzy -- even when it existed solely as an animation on Gizmodo. Yet Microsoft just killed it. Its primary designer? J Allard, though he denies the death of the Courier inspired him to leave.

Where did all of these products come from? You guessed it -- Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices division. Boy, what a bunch of screw-ups.

Pop quiz: What's the biggest Microsoft disaster of all time? Sorry, time's up. The correct answer is Windows Vista. Seven years in the making, and a complete and utter cluster-zune.

Yet Windows and Office are still the cash cows for Redmond, generating billions in profits each quarter. They will for some time to come, just like mainframes still generate billions for IBM. They're not the future, though. The future lives in mobile devices and the cloud. That's now in the hands of Ballmer.

InfoWorld's Ted Samson says this is Microsoft's way of telling the world it's serious about mobile. I think this is their way of telling shareholders it's time to sell.

Microsoft has succeeded because a) Bill Gates realized early on that if you controlled the operating system, you could control the entire PC market; and 2) he and Ballmer used this control to bully hardware makers and enterprises into following "the Microsoft way."

As Microsoft has since discovered, you can't bully your way into the consumer electronics market. Unless you possess a huge institutional advantage (like, say, owning the operating system), you have to actually persuade people your products are better. If you've spent the last 20 years lying to them about how well your products work, they aren't inclined to believe you.

So Microsoft axing one of its captains may look like it's taking its troubles seriously, but it isn't going to solve the problem. Microsoft's biggest problem is the big, bald sweaty guy at the top. You want to see real change in Redmond, that's where it has to happen. But don't count on seeing that any time soon.

How would you solve Microsoft's problems? E-mail me:

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Robert X. Cringely

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