Windows 8 stains Ballmer's legacy

Over-optimistic predictions of Windows 8's success led to CEO's downfall

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It didn't help Ballmer's cause that the company for the first time competed with its traditional computer-making partners by launching its own line of hardware, the Surface RT last October and the Surface Pro this past February. "That infuriated their biggest customers," said Moorhead. "The OEMs have all divorced themselves from Windows RT."

But in July, when Ballmer unveiled a company-wide reorganization, he seemed to put even more emphasis on Microsoft's plans to compete with its OEMs.

Ballmer doesn't see Windows 8 the way his critics do. In the few interviews Ballmer granted Friday, it was the earlier Vista he rated as his greatest disappointment, not the new Windows 8. "I would say probably the thing I regret most is the, what shall I call it, the loopedy-loo that we did that was sort of Longhorn to Vista," Ballmer told long-time Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet.

But Ballmer would not be the first casualty of a botched operating system at Microsoft.

Steven Sinofsky, a polarizing executive who ran the Windows unit during development of both Windows 7 and Windows 8, was ousted from the company last November just weeks after the launch of the latter. Some analysts made a direct connection between Sinofsky's abrupt departure and a realization within the company that the Windows 8 strategy had been misguided.

In 2006, Jim Allchin, a 17-year veteran who had been responsible for Windows Vista, announced his retirement the day the operating system shipped to enterprises. Other Vista hands, including the head of Windows product marketing and lead of the Windows Core group, were also shown the door.

Ballmer's successes and failures extended far beyond Windows 8, as even critics have acknowledged. Microsoft's revenue tripled in his 13 years at the helm and its profit more than doubled. He oversaw the creation of new $1 billion businesses within the company, like Azure; the creation of the Xbox and the formation of a powerful entertainment unit; and the debut of Office 365, the first major software-as-a-service (SaaS) from the company.

"That's what a lot of people miss. Microsoft will remain strong and remain in place," said Cearley.

"You have to say what Ballmer was good at," said Moorhead. "He was good at diversifying a company from PC-centric to an enterprise software company. Through organic growth and acquisition, he did a good job insulating the company from the failures of Windows. He has to be commended for that."

But Windows 8? That may be what people remember about the Ballmer era.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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