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Intelligent Machines

A Look Back as Microsoft’s CEO Prepares to Depart

Microsoft had some big product successes and a number of flops under Steve Ballmer.

Steve Ballmer spent over 30 years at Microsoft, helping shape the company’s products and culture.

The era of Steve Ballmer’s leadership at Microsoft is coming to a close: the CEO said Friday that he plans to retire in the next year, and the company is on the hunt for a successor.

Ballmer, 57, who came to Microsoft in 1980 as its first business manager, was the first CEO after founder Bill Gates left the post in 2000.

In his 13 years at the helm, Ballmer has led some smash-hit products and a number of flops, ranging from computer operating systems to gesture-control gaming hardware (see “Q&A: Steve Ballmer”). The following is a list of some notable successes and failures.


Xbox and Kinect

Introduced in November 2001, the Xbox gaming console was a rapid hit—NPD Group estimates that Microsoft sold 1.5 million units in North America in the first month and a half of its availability. In November 2005, Microsoft released the successor to the device, the Xbox 360, which has also proved popular: though sales dropped slightly year over year, the company said it shipped out a million of the consoles in its fiscal fourth quarter, which ended June 30. A new version of the console, Xbox One, is expected to go on sale in the fall.

In November 2010 Microsoft began selling Kinect, its gesture-based Xbox controller, which has gained a legion of fans on the Xbox platform and beyond. Some researchers and entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the hardware as an inexpensive, readily available way to test their own gesture-control software.



Intended as an iPod challenger, the Zune music and media player was unveiled in September 2006. While the device had plenty of music and video-playing features, it wasn’t able to duplicate the iPod’s style and cachet (nor the mammoth app marketplace that Apple built), and it never caught on with consumers.

While it turned out to be a market failure—sales of the product and its related services were all shuttered by last year—the Zune did influence the look of the software in Microsoft’s later mobile products.



The Kins weren’t pricey smartphones, but they weren’t cheap feature phones, either. Rather, they straddled the line between the two, confusing potential customers. When unveiled in 2010, the original two Kin models ($50 and $100 with a wireless contract) were touted as a tool for teenagers and twentysomethings seeking a handset that was good mostly for calling, texting, and social networking. Unfortunately, the phones necessitated a full-price data plan but didn’t have a number of the features you’d normally get with such a plan. Less than two months after their release, the Kin phones were discontinued.

Operating Systems

The progression from Windows Vista to Windows 7 and on to Windows 8 may be viewed as a story of the bad, the good, and the weird. Vista, brought out in 2007, was a much-delayed successor to Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system, which had gone through rounds of changes before its release that ended up frustrating users and partner companies. In an interview Friday with ZDNet, Ballmer called Vista “the thing I regret most.”

Windows 7, which arrived in July 2009, was a more stable, popular operating system, but it was the last of Microsoft’s PC-focused OSs. As use of smartphones and tablets alongside more traditional computers grew, the need for software that supported unified computing became apparent.

Windows 8, the company’s attempt to build an operating system that works for mobile devices, laptops, desktop computers, and servers, represented an extreme redesign of the computing software. It focuses on simplified, bold-looking details that are meant to be used with a touch screen. Critics, however, complain that it often proves confusing to use (see “Windows 8: Design over Usability”).

microsoft's bing search engine


Positioned as a “decision engine,” Microsoft’s Bing search engine was introduced in May 2009 and has evolved to include a number of social features; for example, it incorporates search results from your friends on social networks. It gained prominence early on when Microsoft signed a 10-year deal with onetime acquisition target Yahoo to make Bing the brains behind the company’s search engine. According to data from comScore, Bing captured 17.9 percent of U.S. search queries in July, taking a distant second place to Google, which had 67 percent of the market. However, 27.1 percent of searches were made using Bing’s technology, while 68.6 percent were made using Google’s.

Bing still has a lot of work to do in order to become a big financial winner for Microsoft: the company’s online services unit, which includes Bing and MSN, posted an operating loss of $1.3 billion for the most recent fiscal year.

Keep up with the latest in Apple at EmTech Digital.

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