Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Microsoft after Ballmer: Can this company be saved?

If there's anything sadder in tech circles than a pathetic Windows fan still trying to convince himself that Windows 8.x has been anything except a total failure, it would have to be someone who believes that Steve Ballmer did anything during his tenure as Microsoft's CEO other than set the company up to follow in the footsteps of failed U.S. carmakers.

Scot Finnie, Computerworld's editor in chief, recently spelled out Ballmer's shortcomings. Bottom line: Microsoft lost its vision. Instead of being a leader, it's been playing catch-up in mobile, tablets and search while losing its way on the desktop with its user-hostile Metro interface.

You don't have to believe us. Look at the numbers. Microsoft's board cut Ballmer's bonus because of an 18% decline in Windows Division operating income and a $900 million inventory charge related to Surface RT.

I've been saying Microsoft should fire Ballmer since 2008. Instead, he's leaving on his own terms. Even as he heads to the door, Ballmer is changing how the company will run for years to come. Of the dubious decisions he has made recently, the $7 billion purchase of Nokia doubled down on the bet Microsoft made, with Surface, to betray its hardware partners. He did make a smart, though long overdue, move to jettison the hated "stack ranking" employee evaluation system. But whether the moves have been smart or dumb, you have to wonder how much influence the new CEO can have when he'll have to live with all these lame-duck strategic decisions.

Speaking of the new CEO, have you looked at the short list of candidates? Yack! (That's shorthand for, "Who in this group has what it takes to redeem this faltering company?")

The most well known in technology circles is Stephen Elop. He's a former Microsoft executive, so that qualifies him, right? Oh yeah, he also led Nokia to ruin. There's a crazy theory that Elop was a Microsoft plant at Nokia, sent to wreck it and make it cheaper to buy. Definitely crazy, until you try to come up with a reason for him to be a serious candidate that makes any sense.

Alan Mulally seems to have done well at Ford, but he's played games in describing just how well the automaker has done under him. For example, while it's true that Ford didn't get funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, it did rely on government support to keep its head above water at the start of the Great Recession. By the way, Mulally knows nothing about the tech business.

Satya Nadella has overseen Microsoft's money-losing online business lines, such as Bing.

Kevin Turner is Microsoft's COO. In that role, he's been in charge of Microsoft's ad sales, sales and marketing, and public relations since 2006. Well, I guess it isn't really his fault that his teams couldn't make winners out of dogs like Windows 8.x, Windows Phone, Zune and Surface.

The one person the Microsoft board is considering who seems like a reasonable choice is Tony Bates. The former CEO of Skype has shown that he can handle both the tech and management sides of business. But I doubt they'll pick him. He's only been with Microsoft since 2011.

But where are the visionaries? How about a leader who can radically transform a business? I don't see any. Can any of them make a slow company agile enough to compete against nimble players like Amazon, Apple and Google? I don't see that happening. Instead, I see the 2010s shaping up as the decade of Microsoft's decline.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at

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