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Microsoft CEO Ballmer's Do-Over Wish: Search

Posted by: Michael Arndt on June 18, 2009

Steve Ballmer isn’t Edith Piaf after all: He does have regrets. The chief executive of Microsoft says he wishes his company had been much swifter in developing a search engine. “If I could have one do-over,” he says, “I would say start sooner on search.”

Ballmer was in Chicago on June 18 for back-to-back speeches before two business groups. At the second event, before the Executives Club of Chicago, he talked about the recession and innovation. (More on that in a moment.) He gave a plug for Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine, which my colleague, Peter Burrows, blogged about recently. And he took a few questions from the audience that numbered 1,500-plus. That’s when he turned rueful.

Ballmer said he and his predecessor at Microsoft, Bill Gates, used to keep a list of 10 biggest mistakes they had made. They’d look at it and rib each other by asking: “Can you believe that we spent $2 million building blah-blah-blah?”

But he said what bothers him most is something he didn't do: come up with a popular search engine before Google. "Sometimes the error you make is what you don't do or what you don't start soon enough," he said. "Most of our mistakes came not because we didn't see the technology change that was coming. Ironically, we didn't see the business change that was coming."

He blames Microsoft's corporate heft, in part. Microsoft had spent richly on research and development. Its R&D budget comes to $9 billion this year alone. And the company had plenty of people working on producing a search engine. But Microsoft had lost its startup brashness. New companies have an edge: They have to succeed big or go bankrupt. That forces them to take risks fast, before it's too late.

It's actually more difficult for the market leader to experiment," he said. "We had all these people doing search research. But we had no business model in mind. So we were slow to move and slower to invest in it. We should have started earlier."

Of course, late is better than never. Microsoft launched its newest search engine, Bing, a few weeks ago. Today, he said, it has 8% of the market. (Industry tracker comScore puts Microsoft's latest share at 12%.) Google has 65%, by comparison. But success isn't always overnight. He noted that Microsoft introduced Windows in 1983 and it didn't really become a hit until 1992.

"In our industry, the No. 1 mistake people make is they quit too early. Most technology businesses took a while to build up. The key is to show a little patience."

Ballmer used his spotlight to try to win more users. Try it, he urged the crowd. "If you really want to do me a favor, click on one of the ads. Otherwise, we don't make any money." The audience roared.

A few other take-aways:

* "I don't think we're in a recession. I think we're resetting the economy. This is the new normal. Yesterday was the exception."

* "It's clear that debt will not be the economic growth driver of the next 10 years. For now, debt is not the key. Productivity and innovation are."

* "The next 10 years are going to be as good or better than the last 10 years, from an innovation perspective. You'll see amazing things."

* "We've got our mojo going now. We're rolling. We're the little engine that could."

Reader Comments


June 19, 2009 2:49 AM

The first edition of Gates' The Road Ahead, supposedly the grand vision of the future from the architect of the personal computer himself, hardly mentioned the Internet. Is anyone surprised that MS is behind on search?


June 19, 2009 4:54 AM

Dear friends, I consider that the large corporations should follow the logic CARLOS SLIM, which has so intensive strategy to savings. Mexicans born in the hospital, selling them food, electricity, fuel
built roads, phone lines and as a benefactor
gives 100-500 dolars'd think. Carlos Slim has over a hundred billion dollars profit?

Thank you and regards


June 19, 2009 3:02 PM

As soon as I became aware of Bing, I took a look at it and I was not impressed.
It has really nice graphics but it didn't help me finding what I am looking for.
I work in IT and I also have a great curiosity for general knowledge, but most of the time is Yahoo the search engine that gets me closer to what I am looking for, I was very disappointed with Bing, a lot of hype and nothing more.

Lord Henry of Lansdale

June 19, 2009 9:24 PM

Little Willy should get back to work and stop screwing around in Africa. Microsoft stock has drooped since he left. Balmer cannot handle the load. Little Willy must return and take over again.


June 19, 2009 10:56 PM

bing is bung


June 23, 2009 4:05 AM

I concur that bing is not overly impressive, but it is good as a '1.0' product (even though this is MSFT's Nth try at search). It has to play catch up in refining search, but MSFT has never gotten a good product going its first try. Did the original XBOX change the industry? Did the pre-zune outsourced players ever gain traction? They are setting the stage for later plays and will tweak their momentum depending on the initial outcomes. The real question is if they can deliver in the long run in this markedly different sector.

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