Bungled mobile bet will be Ballmer's swan song

Windows 8 and Surface could send Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer packing by this time next year

Being rich doesn't necessarily mean you're smart, and the rich guys on Wall Street have made a lot of terrible calls in the past few years. But when it comes to the mobile revolution, Wall Street is catching on. If there was ever any doubt about that, just check out the barrage of instructive earnings and sales news we've seen as the third-quarter financial reporting season comes to an end.  

We saw wretched results from Intel, AMD, Microsoft, and others. Bad economy, sure, but the real news is flagging PC sales. If it were just the economy, why is Samsung doing so well in sales of chips for mobile phones and actual mobile phones?

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Apple sold 3 million iPads last weekend. Think about that. Yeah, the company has screwed up with Maps and other items, but when you can hit those kinds of sales numbers, many sins can be forgiven.

Then there was Facebook. Those who thought the company was headed for MySpace territory were wrong. An earnings call with CEO Mark "Boy Billionaire" Zuckerberg convinced Wall Street that Facebook is gaining traction in mobile advertising. Sure, it was fun to watch the IPO fizzle, but the bottom line is when you have hundreds of millions of users, you'll find a way. Of course, mobile ads mean even more intrusive, privacy-shattering stunts, but that's another story.

What this means to those of us who don't invest in tech stocks is clear. Old-line tech giants like Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel will throw resources into mobile, and the venture capital crews on Silicon Valley's Sand Hill Road will do the same, creating more and more opportunities for engineers and developers who know mobile technology.

Those are easy calls. But I'm going to stick my neck out and make another: If Windows 8 and the Surface tablet flop, you'll see a shareholder revolt that will send Steve Ballmer packing by this time next year.

Numbers don't lie: Mobile is the future
When it comes to mobile, you have to start with Apple, and just a few numbers tell the tale. Apple, the world's biggest company measured by stock-market value, said it sold 26.9 million iPhones in its fiscal fourth quarter, up 58 percent from a year ago and above analyst expectations.

That enormous sales figure would have been even higher had supply not been constrained, said CEO Tim Cook. Either way, when you can sell 3 million devices in a couple of days, there's no doubt that Apple is showing the industry what road it needs to take.

Then there's Samsung. For all the legal ugliness between it and Apple, the two companies are partners, with the Koreans selling mobile chips to Cupertino -- which Intel wishes it could do. (As I noted last week, that's not impossible, and Intel is working hard to shift gears and become a serious provider of mobile silicon.) Samsung estimated that its July-September operating income nearly doubled to $7.3 billion from a year earlier.

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