Ballmer bounces into retirement

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Media captionFormer Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer said Microsoft has a record in innovation second to none

Microsoft's former chief executive Steve Ballmer was in his usual lively form at a question and answer session at the Said Business School in Oxford.

For more than three decades he has been a huge and noisy presence at Microsoft, whether bouncing sweatily across a stage at a staff rally, or bawling at a colleague who announced his departure for a rival. But in Oxford today, Steve Ballmer was a quieter and more sober figure, barely audible and apparently shy in front of an audience of MBA students.

You didn't believe that, did you?

What we got at the Said Business School was Ballmer Squared, with the volume turned up to 11. His booming laugh echoed out across the lecture hall, as he joked with the dean, Prof Peter Tufano, a friend from Harvard student days. A stream of reminiscences and life and business lessons flowed freely for an absorbing hour.

The man who yelled "I... LOVE... THIS… COMPANY!" in that infamous video was obviously still deeply enamoured of the business he joined in 1980 and only left a few weeks ago on the appointment of the new CEO Satya Nadella.

The father of three described the company as his fourth child, insisting "our people care more than the people who work for our competitors". He said he'd been near the headquarters of one of those deadly rivals on Saturday night on his way to the cinema with his wife and had "checked out the parking lot - I felt OK about how we were doing", he boomed, making it clear that going to the movies on a Saturday rather than staying late at work was a sure sign of a lack of moral fibre.

Image copyright David fisher

What was the best advice he'd received? From his father - "If you're going to do a job, do a job."

And the worst? Not to drop out of his MBA to join Microsoft - this with a smirk to the MBA students gathered before him.

Best advice for them on starting a business or choosing an employer? Understand price, think about a business model early (something pretty unfashionable right now), and above all have an idea that you're excited about or join a company where you'll be eager to go to work every day. And that other fashionable maxim "fail fast" received short shrift - he said great companies did not fail fast, but kept on working and modifying, so they were ready to catch the next wave of innovation.

Then I got the chance to ask a question on that very theme. The last time I interviewed Mr Ballmer and questioned the record of innovation under his leadership, I thought he might throw me out of the window.

This time I asked why Microsoft had invested huge sums in R&D, come up with ideas like the tablet computer a decade before Apple, yet failed to turn that expertise into leadership in mobile computing. This time he seemed a lot less angry, and came up with a thoughtful answer, admitting that "we got a little bit behind".

"The thing I regret", he said "is that we didn't bring hardware and software together soon enough". He explained that there had been "a bit of magic" in the way Microsoft's operating system and IBM's hardware had come together - and the way Android and Samsung had combined -"but if you want to build a vision to market it is helpful to be able to conceive and deliver the hardware and software".

Mr Ballmer insisted that with its Surface tablet and the acquisition of Nokia - the most important thing he'd ever done at the company - Microsoft is now well placed to catch the next wave, and wouldn't be left standing by a deadly rival again:

"Our company is building new muscle so we're not just thinking of things like tablets in advance and then letting Apple commercialise it. We're there ready for the next wave. "

Image copyright David Fisher

The jury is still out on whether Microsoft, whose Windows Phone 8 system still has a small share of the mobile market, can make up lost ground. That will be the main challenge for the new leadership, though Mr Ballmer pointed out that he was still "a very interested board member" with a 4% stake in Microsoft.

That of course makes him very wealthy indeed and the best question of the session, from an American student, touched on that. "I know you do things for the excitement and everything," he said, "but what is the best perk of being immensely wealthy and powerful?"

Ballmer roared with laughter - and said he would have avoided that question a month ago - but answered: "I can play just about any golf course I want - I'm a lousy golfer, but I love it." Then he apologised for not coming up with something more "cosmic".

Satya Nadella, a rather quieter figure than his predecessor, may be hoping that Steve Ballmer spends as much time as possible on the golf course. With Bill Gates already planning to devote more of his time to advising the company, the noisy presence of the other former CEO could prove just a little distracting.