Why Steve Ballmer is headed for the exit

If you helped build an American icon, would you want the misery of tearing it down in order to fix it?

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The fact of the matter is that Microsoft serves a broader range of customers with a more diverse array of products than any other tech company. It has already committed tremendous resources to building out cloud infrastructure. Its Windows Azure cloud has evolved to become the most mature cloud next to Amazon Web Services. And its data center offerings, led by Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012, keep hitting the target. Put all those pieces together in a different way, and Microsoft crosses the chasm, right?

Conflicts inside and out

Except that none of the old guard software companies have yet figured out how to turn their software into cloud services and make a buck -- or at least nowhere near the bucks they made off licensed software. Not IBM, not Oracle, not SAP.

I'm convinced Microsoft is in a unique position to deliver everything your average small business needs through the cloud, and it's clearly headed that way with Office 365. But how do you do that and not screw your channel partners? And if you provide ways to give those partners a slice, as with Microsoft's Cloud Easy program, how thin do the margins become?

Similarly, the bright spots of Azure, Windows Server 2012, and System Center 2012 offer great potential for small businesses -- and Hyper-V is giving VMware a run for its money. The integration between local Windows Server infrastructure and Azure makes the elusive proposition of "bursting to the cloud" increasingly feasible. But Microsoft is also licensing Azure to partners, creating yet another channel conflict.

Not all divisions are working together like the server and cloud guys. I won't go into the challenges of pulling together Microsoft's various feudal empires, except to say that few analysts seem to believe Ballmer's July reorg will turn a fragmented Microsoft into "one Microsoft." Some are even suggesting the company should be broken up.

The Microsoft board won't entertain that idea anytime soon. The search begins for a new CEO who can crack the whip, change the culture, and get everyone on the same page.

But that's only part of the challenge. If you ask me, the new CEO needs to hire Microsoft's version of Apple's Jonathan Ive -- someone who designs products from the user experience in, rather than from the engineering specs out -- and give that person real power. On top of everything else, the new CEO will need to transform Microsoft from an engineering-driven company to a design-driven company.

As Thompson's statement implies, this will include designing devices people actually want. Among the new CEO's first acts should be grabbing the Surface by the corner, walking over to the nearest recycling bin, and dropping it in.

For these and other reasons, the new CEO of Microsoft must be unfazed by legions of enemies from day one. To stand fast in the face of that you need to do more than yell; you need a singular vision -- which Ballmer lacked -- not to mention the coldness to bust heads with extreme prejudice. Retirement was an excellent choice.

This article, "Why Steve Ballmer is headed for the exit," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog. And for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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