The World According to Ballmer


By Ben Elgin Never let it be said that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer isn't competitive.

Speaking to a packed auditorium at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., on May 12, Ballmer trumpeted the ripe opportunities around Microsoft's sprawling business and questioned the ability of Google (GOOG) to maintain its edge. Clearly alluding to Microsoft's key Internet search rival, Ballmer said: "The hottest company right now -- the one nobody thinks can do any wrong -- may just be a one-hit wonder."

In a speech that spanned topics from what Ballmer would have done had he not joined Microsoft (MSFT) 25 years ago (probably auto-insurance sales) to the launch later in the day of Microsoft's second-generation Xbox video game console, Ballmer focused most of his remarks on innovation. He predicted that industry-rattling innovation will sweep through the technology markets in the coming years.

MOBILE MANAGER. "I've lost track of the number of times people have said the personal computer has reached its limits," said Ballmer. "We'll see as much innovation in tech over the next five years as we saw in the past decade."

Among the areas most ripe for innovation, according to Ballmer, are digital entertainment and the unification and increased potency of communications devices, from cell phones to instant messaging on a computer. Just two days ago, Microsoft unveiled the latest version of its operating system for mobile computing devices (see BW Online, 5/11/05, "Microsoft's Mobile Initiative"). Software, Ballmer says, will provide a key to "more effectively manage all of the communications you're involved with."

LABOR OF LOVE. The booming search market, in which Microsoft recently unveiled technology meant to better compete with Google and Yahoo! (YHOO), was also singled out by Ballmer. The way people search and organize information, he predicted, will be vastly different five years from now. "We've only scratched the surface," he says.

The speech was hosted by the Stanford Business School, which Ballmer attended for one year before dropping out to join his friend Bill Gates at software startup Microsoft. Ballmer told the audience he sees himself working another 12 years, which would take him to age 61, before retiring. "I don't have to do what I do," he remarked. On the other hand, "how much better does it get?"

Looks like it will be some time before he tries to find out. Elgin is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau


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