Steve Ballmer

Business Tycoon

Age: 46

Claim to fame: He joined Microsoft Corp. in 1980 as the first business manager hired by Bill Gates. In January 2000, he assumed full management responsibility.

What he's doing now: CEO of Microsoft

Miles above the Pacific Ocean, a decade or so ago, Steve Ballmer had an epiphany of sorts. He was settling into a business-class seat on a U.S.-bound United Air Lines jet, returning home from a work trip to Australia and New Zealand. His laptop was powered on, and he had eight charged batteries at his side.

"I could carry my slides. I could carry my e-mail. I could carry anything I needed to read. I could carry my life with me. It was very powerful," Microsoft's CEO recalls, with characteristic enthusiasm. "I was thinking, 'Wow, isn't this cool? I can work all the way home.' "

Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft
Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft
Ballmer says he has no idea what type of breakthrough will inspire him to have a similar reaction during the next decade. But his basic premise is that, in a "quantum sense," systems will become "faster, easier to use, more flexible and more connected."

"If you say that to people, that doesn't sound that inspiring; that doesn't sound like such a breakthrough," he acknowledges. But even if it's just a computer with a spreadsheet, a word processor and a mail package, he foresees "such radical improvements on those fronts that it would look like a completely different experience."

Ballmer speaks with passion about the Windows-powered Tablet PC, due this fall. He says he thinks some may be underestimating the excitement that will be generated by the lightweight, wirelessly connected PC, on which users will be able to tape and synchronize a presentation with their handwritten or typed notes, if desired.

And that only scratches the surface of technology voids that might be addressed. Ballmer notes that he doesn't have a watch with a computer built into it. If he did, he might wear one. He says he'd like to do a family slide show on his TV, with digitized pictures from his PC. "It's not an easy thing to do," he says.

Ballmer says most people still get only some of the information they need, and integrated views of data will become increasingly important, particularly in business.

Microsoft has been pushing XML to help pave the way. Ballmer says he expects XML's impact "to grow every day for the next five or six years," improving IT efficiency and productivity and systems management.

Another trend that Ballmer expects will escalate among IT organizations is the outsourcing of standard operations, freeing decision-makers to focus on the strategic aspects of their businesses.

"If you go out 10 years in time, I'll bet you that most companies will not run their own knowledge worker infrastructure," Ballmer predicts. "You'll buy or subscribe to a service that gets the PCs, desktop productivity infrastructure and file sharing to e-mail and directory.

"You could think of it as software as a service, or you could think of it as outsourcing," he says. "It's kind of a mixture between the two."

In his own business, Ballmer says the vendors that will succeed during the next decade are those that have the "ability to add value through software" and "innovate but heed the customer."

"You can't just heed the customer. You can't just innovate. You have to do both," he says.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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