Steve Ballmer Came To My University, And It Was Awesome

Last week I posted in this forum requesting questions to put to Steve Ballmer, who today came and spoke at my university's debating society. The most popular response came from a Microsoft employee, and was a question about Microsoft's internal competition, between employees, teams, and divisions: whether Ballmer thought it had been beneficial or not. I planned to combine this with a question on competition more generally, asking also about Microsoft competing with its own partners in Windows with the Surface, and in Windows Phone with the Nokia acquisition. Alas, my question was never called; there were too many other hands in the air. Nevertheless, there were some other interesting questions that he did answer.

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(I am highly embarrassed about how this photo turned out, which I shall blame entirely on my Nexus 5. The entire event was filmed professionally, but has not yet appeared on the Oxford Union's YouTube channel. Whether it ever will is uncertain.)

One of the most interesting was about the markets with the greatest future growth potential for Microsoft. Ballmer spoke at length-and volume-about the potential for digital assistants. He mentioned image recognition and 'big data', using the example of knowing someone's name just by looking at them. He mentioned neither Google Now, Google Glass, nor Cortana by name, though he did talk about growth in wearables generally. He was also keen to talk about healthcare in this context and in others, coming back to the topic a few times. When asked about what his next move was-a question suggested in response to my original post-he was keen to emphasise passion as the most important reason to be involved in anything. He then spoke for a couple of minutes without another prompt-passionately, one might say-about the 5% more of GDP spent on American healthcare compared to European healthcare, and where that money might otherwise be able to go. He freely admitted his lack of knowledge on the area, but then came back to the topic along with education, when citing examples of areas which had potential to have a much greater engagement with tech.

There was a question on Courier, a product which, he reminded the audience-grinning-had never been confirmed to exist by Microsoft. Speaking strictly in the hypothetical, he said Courier could never have been released for lack of apps and reasonable pricing. The fact that these sound like the problems of Windows RT was not mentioned as rebuttal, much to my disappointment. He also talked a lot about the importance of long-term investment, which he called 'building new muscle' for the business. He used this to explain investment in Windows Phone, making it clear he saw it as a long-term project. Microsoft, he said, were attempting to understand what was possible before being capable of taking the market.

The third trick is out there waiting to be invented

One thing he kept coming back to was the familiar shark move-forward-or-die metaphor, expressing it in both these terms and also by reference to the importance of tech companies not being one-trick ponies. Microsoft, he acknowledged, was still looking for its next trick. One question that stuck out was about how he expected the style of leadership to change. His answer began as 'how the market thinks it should' before the questioner interrupted that he was asking how Ballmer expected it to change, not how he wanted it to change. Ballmer conceded, effectively, that there was no clear answer to this question. If only there were some way of predicting future conduct based on previous behaviour.