Impressions of the Engadget Show with Steve Ballmer
Yesterday afternoon I witnessed a great interview between Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, and Joshua Topolsky, editor-in-chief of gadget blog Engadget. The event of course celebrated the launch of Windows 7, but Windows Mobile (6.5 and 7), Zune HD, and Microsoft’s cloud computing initiatives were all hot topics, and each were discussed at some length.
While Josh maintained a level of cool collectedness throughout, Ballmer was energetic, apologetic, and at times, seemed like he was having genuine fun in the interviewee chair. A number of the audience members around me mentioned that Ballmer seemed "nervous," but I saw it more as a frustration with consumer markets in general not "getting" the Microsoft message. He showed that the company had made many strides towards products and scenarios that consumers wanted to see, but even still appeared to be quite alright with taking a second place to Apple in mindshare if it meant holding on to the much larger number of sales the company regularly pulls in. Josh asked why we had seen Microsoft-built hardware products for Xbox and Zune and not, for example, a mobile phone. Ballmer replied that game consoles, media players, mice, etc. all had total sales of under 50 million units, while PCs, phones, and TVs outsold those markets several times over, so it made sense to create a platform rather than building something new. He cryptically mentioned that the rumored "Pink" phones would not be made by Microsoft, but likely a hardware partner.
When asked about the possibility of seeing Zune in the next version of Windows Mobile, Ballmer nodded. "Next version, yes," before jokingly adding, "but that’s always the typical technology company response, 'next version.'" It remains to be announced the extent of the Zune feature set that will make it into Windows, as so far the recent Xbox / Zune Video integration has been relatively underwhelming as far as rumored and promised feature crossover. Ballmer claimed he hadn't seen the leaked video of Microsoft's Courier tablet concept, but added with a smile that he would be excited to see any company produce something similar to what he had heard was showed in the video.
Josh pressed the CEO on a number of difficult topics, and gained some good answers, some well-crafted dodges, and a number of somber apologies for high-profile mistakes like the recent Danger/Sidekick data loss. Josh called out Windows Mobile, referring to the platform as—and I'm paraphrasing here—less than successful. He asked if Microsoft as a company was heading in too many directions, to which Ballmer replied that as a computer company this size, it would be a mistake not to be in, for example the search business, and companies like Apple simply do not have the market share or penetration in the rest of the world to truly be a threat to the bottom line. Ballmer seemed to approach these seemingly divergent brands as a necessity for a company its size to maintain its position of dominance.
After the show was over, Josh returned to the stage with fellow Engadget editors Nilay Patel and Paul Miller to discuss news of the week. They spent about 3 minutes on Windows 7 before declaring that enough time had been spent on the topic (huh?) and went on to discuss the Mac lineup refresh, Barnes & Noble's new Nook, and the poor marketing message conveyed through Verizon's "Droid Does" ads.
At one point, Nilay referred to Windows 7 as "Vista done right," which I’ve never been able to understand. Sure at a low-level, it appears as if 7 is merely a slight tweak from Vista (perhaps the taskbar and new Aero features were "add-ons"?), but many of these features would not be possible without a lot of the compatibility breaks Vista ushered in. This includes technological/architectural, interface, and marketing initiatives that have become necessary in modern operating systems. In many ways, I doubt a success like 7 could have come any other way than such a dramatic shift.
The episode will be available for download today from Engadget.