Steve Ballmer: One Giant Misunderstanding of a Man

Microsoft's in the middle of an attempted renaissance, and leading the way is ol' sweatstains himself, Steve Ballmer. Ashlee Vance at Businessweek has a nice, sprawling feature that's as much about the tongue-wagging chrome dome as it is about the company he leads.

True or not, conventional wisdom on Balmer is that he's big and loud and crazy and brash, and probably incapable of moving Microsoft out of its enterprise-centric track. But now businesses are wary of jumping into bed with Microsoft because it's long been perceived as being out of touch with the consumer market. That contradiction, and the underlying untruth of it, is really clear when it comes to the cloud:

The fullest expression of Ballmer's ambition is Microsoft's cloud computing strategy. About 40 million people subscribe to the $60-per-year Xbox live service that delivers games and television shows. There's also the Zune service for music and movies, which runs across Xboxes, PCs, and phones. This year, Microsoft moved its Office software to the cloud, and it has tens of thousands of paying customers on its business software service called Azure. Through its consumer service SkyDrive, people can store files online and automatically have the photos and videos they take with their Windows phones saved in the cloud and then access them from their PC or Xbox.

Microsoft's actually got its junk together pretty well in the cloud, but companies are still hesitant to hitch up to the Microsoft name. To that end, Ballmer and Microsoft have been running a relations and marketing blitz to try to change its image:

At present, Microsoft has 14 retail stores and plans to open up to 75 more over the next three years, usually placing them as close as possible to Apple outlets. "Well, the traffic is going to be there, and we've got to beat them anyway," Ballmer says with a shrug. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been giving the Best Buys (BBY), Wal-Marts, and other third parties an education in the New Microsoft at a 20,000-square-foot facility a few miles from its Redmond headquarters called the Retail Experience Center, or REC.

But refreshingly, Ballmer seems to get that the only way for Microsoft to get back to being the point of envy, not a cautionary tale, is to make great things, to be great:

Microsoft's shabby track record at anticipating technology trends adds to the angst. The company spent $9 billion on research and development last year-more than any other tech company by far-yet remains in a costly game of catch-up. Ballmer tends to argue away product failings by saying the company does not chase after fads. Microsoft invests for the long term, and history has shown that it tends to win out in the end. "Perception is discontinuous," he says. "You are what you are, whatever it is. And then there's an aha! moment when people say you're something else."

So yeah, Ballmer knows his Microsoft has been screwing an assortment of pooches for a while now, but he's trying to make good with great products and ideas. And it's working, for the most part. Windows 8 looks amazing. Windows Phone is the freshest thing going in mobile. And because Microsoft has such a massive amount of money to throw at R&D, there's always the danger—the hope, really—that it might put those crazy resources to use making amazing things. There's way more on Ballmer in Vance's full profile, so be sure to check that out over at Businessweek. [Businessweek]