Love him. Hate him. But Steve Ballmer made sure that you never had the luxury or even the option of ignoring him. As static and composed as a cat on a hot tin roof, as diplomatic as Genghis Khan, as subtle as a sledgehammer, the man in charge of Microsoft was never lost for words or actions. In an era when diplomacy and jargon dominated most corporate communications, we in the media always looked forward to anything he did, because we never knew what he would come up with. Or what he would say.

steve-ballmer

What we were assured of was passion. And quotes galore – the man sure could talk. He was not always right – hey, we went to town when he got things wrong. But at least the man spoke his mind, and did not sound like a print release in human form.

So, as he announces the date of his retirement, here are eleven Ballmer quotes that no one will forget in a hurry: (no, we are not putting unconfirmed stuff here!)

“We [Microsoft] don’t have a monopoly. We have market share. There’s a difference.”

No one really knows when Ballmer said this but it has been attributed to him many times and has never been denied by the man himself. It is a line which would be borrowed by other manufacturers, albeit differently. Jobs and Cook would go to lengths to show just how dominant the iPad was in the tablet segment, although the ‘M’ word was never used.

“I just think netbook is a funny brand … what is a netbook? Is it defined by its operating system, its memory, its screen size? They’re really just PCs. I bet if you asked people if they planned to buy a portable computer you’d get a much better response. … It’s a little hard to know what the heck the difference is between the netbook and the PC.”

Never one to mince words, Ballmer made his dislike of netbooks abundantly clear to Walt Mossberg in June 2009. Brave, when you consider that this was said at a time when netbooks were selling like hot cakes (even Nokia would make one before the year was out). To his credit, Ballmer got it right – the netbook revolution would peter out later, as notebook prices fell and tablets (portable computers) hit the market.

“Linux is not in the public domain. Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches. That’s the way that the license works.”

So one did not expect unconditional respect for Linux from the Microsoft CEO, but Linux lovers were still stunned when Ballmer made this statement in an interview to the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001. Linux would never really seriously challenge Windows in the desktop space, but rare is the open source fan who has forgiven Ballmer for his outburst.

“Everyone likes to differentiate between business and consumers but I don’t see the difference really. Most people are people. I get personal and business mail and I have one set of contacts from my life. I don’t want to manage two sets. I want one view of my world.”

Speaking at the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona in 2006, Ballmer surprised people with this statement. After all, wasn’t he the hard-boiled professional? What the statement proved however, was that Ballmer was not just a good professional, but a passionate one. One who loved his work so much that he considered it part of his life. His “One View” incidentally would be reflected in several mail clients – not just Microsoft’s – which would give users a “unified” view of all the mail they had.

“I’ve got my kids brainwashed: You don’t use Google, and you don’t use an iPod.”

Ballmer was passionate about Microsoft. And those around him had to bear the brunt of it, family no exception, as he revealed to Fortune in 2006. He would later mimic stamping on an iPhone!

“The most common format of music on an iPod is “stolen”.”

Windows had DRM long before Apple did, but Ballmer was perhaps overstating the case when he made this statement at London in 2004, hinting that Apple’s lack of experience with DRM was promoting piracy.

“You don’t need to be a computer scientist to use a Windows Phone. I think you do to use an Android Phone… It is hard for me to be excited about the Android phones.”

As his tenure at Microsoft lengthened, there were suggestions that Ballmer’s loyalty to his company was making him blind to the virtues of the opposition. And there were many who smiled when he compared using an Android phone as being on the same level as rocket science at the Web 2.0 conference in 2011. The fact that he said he could not be excited about a mobile OS most consumers were lapping up made great headlines, but made his fans wince!

“If…I’m supposed to figure out the answer, I’m as likely to be as much bull in the china shop as I ever was. It’s not personal, I don’t intend to hurt anybody. I just don’t think I’m getting through to people…I get frustrated.”

Never known to have the patience of a saint, Ballmer’s temper and tantrums were stuff of which legend were made of. We do not know when he made this statement about being a ‘bull in a China shop’ but once again it is a quote that has been often attributed to him and never contested. A man who gets frustrated when he is not getting through and can be a bull in a China shop, without meaning it personally? Sounds like the Big B of Microsoft indeed!

“We can believe that we know where the world should go. But unless we’re in touch with our customers, our model of the world can diverge from reality. There’s no substitute for innovation, of course, but innovation is no substitute for being in touch, either.”

Again, we do not know exactly when Ballmer said this, but the quote is the perfect anti-thesis to the Apple crowd whose hero Steve Jobs famously claimed “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Ballmer for all his temper, for all his frenzied excitement, always tried to be in touch with the consumer, and was a manic reader of customer reactions. Many believe that this led him to drive products that tried to do too much and be all things to all people – Windows Vista and the Surface being prime examples.

“The lifeblood of our business is that R&D spend. There’s nothing that flows through a pipe or down a wire or anything else. We have to continuously create new innovation that lets people do something they didn’t think they could do the day before.”

Marketing and sales wiz? Frenzied leader? Ballmer was all that, but he also recognized the need to innovate and this statement that he made during the Cambridge Energy Research Association Week at Houston in 2005 sums up his sentiments about the importance of innovation and the role R&D plays in it. Words we really think EVERY CEO of a software company should frame and hang up on their office walls. Microsoft would be accused of many things in Ballmer’s range. Not giving enough attention to R&D would not be one of them, though.

“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”

One of the perils of speaking your mind without fear is that when you get things wrong, your statements get hurled in your face. Ballmer’s contemptuous dismissal of Apple’s iPhone while talking to David Lieberman in USA Today in 2007 would come back to haunt him again and again. But he did get things right too.


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Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.