A morning with Ballmer

Posted on October 7, 2005, under general.

This morning, I attended the guest lecture of Steve Ballmer at Trinity College Dublin, of which I am a part-time student. It took place in the MacNeil theatre in the Hamilton building, which was packed to capacity, and was also streamed to the nearby Joly theatre. It was well-organised, with seemlingly 30 or so Microsofters shepherding everyone, a reasonable amount of security (bag searches) and the lovely Sile Seoige as our MC.

He spoke with a lot of enthusiasm and energy, and far from being a pointy-haired boss actually reminded me of Loud Howard, in a good sort of a way. For most of his lecture he sat in the Lotus position on a table, and frequently got energised by what he was saying; at points throwing around bits of paper to express his distaste for old-world inefficiency. Maybe he’s playing up to his reputation of chair-throwing, and he may even like the image (if you ask me, it’s better than seeming like a boring suit). Jo Macri (head of Microsoft Ireland) was there, along with a few HR/PR manager-types I recognised from various Microsoft functions I’ve been to with Noirin (who used to work for MS).

Laid out on each of our desks was an X-Box 360 Folder, notepad and pen. Also included was a beta copy of a Visual Studio element. I got Visual Basic, others got Visual Web Studio. Considering the room was mostly CS undergrads, this was a pretty good idea on their part.

The format worked well, with Ballmer speaking for 20 minutes and leaving the remainder of an hour for discussion and questions. The ocasion was to mark 20 years of MS in Ireland; they started out producing floppies here for the European market. Overall, I would rate him pretty highly as a speaker. I took a lot of notes, and got to ask a question. I’ll try and get the interesting parts in here.

Mr. Ballmer’s time in Ireland has been well spent, he revealed that he had spent his time earlier in the morning with AIB, no doubt forming part of the high-level MS effort to persuade them that switching to Java Desktop is a bad idea. Last night he and An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, had dinner; discussing productivity in the economy, no less.

He also shared with us that he gets about 100 emails a day, which I thought was funny, since that isn’t very many. Some other claims from him included 200 million Hotmail users, which again didn’t seem very many, and that MSN Spaces had 20 Million blogs which, according to MS, makes them the leader. I’m not sure about those figures. Noticable on his wrist were two of those charity wristbands; one yellow, one orange.

Of course the topic of Google “taking on” Microsoft came up, and Steve supplied the right answer; Microsoft treat them like any other competitor, and the search team are working hard to become number 2 in search, and then number 1 (they are number 3 right now). We’ll get to see how they do, I guess.

Something I didn’t know, and found interesting was that MS are going to make a free version of Visual Studio available via MSDN (not just to subscribers), called Visual Studio Express, and that they hope it will get a lot of student take-up, and that they realise “free” is the only budget students have. I hope it contains enough functionality to build Apache on Windows. A big barrier to development on Win32 is the high-cost of the development tools. It would be nice to see Open Source developers have easier access to the platform, and I think this might (if somewhat unintentionally) help.

Ballmer was asked about Open Source, and again supplied a good answer; saying that Linux is considered a competitor like any other and that they would work hard to out-innovate and out-compete it. On Open Source as a philisophy, he added that he was happy to see developers “do it” and thinks that it is “wonderful that people can try different things” but that he wouldn’t be able to make a business model out of it (opening the source of Windows was his example) and hence employ thousands of Irish people. As much as I support and love Open Source, he’s probably right on that one. For now, anyway.

I asked why would Microsoft Office not support the Open Document Format, and pointed out that it seemed a bit rich to claim exclusion from a process they could so easily involve themselves in. His answer could have been scripted from the PR MS have put out on the issue: saying that Microsoft support Open Formats (he mentioned XML and the recent addition of PDF), that it was “hard to understand” why there was an exception for PDF (which had just been mentioned as an Open Format, so that seemed very odd). He continued that it was really a question of the “fidelity” of the document formats and that ODF is not as “high-level” a format. So now I know, the scripted answer definitely comes right from the top. This is absolutely a top-level strategic decision. It should be noted though; the CEO didn’t rule out supporting ODF in the future, he’s much cleverer than that.

Towards the end, Steve was asked about software patents, and responded that he thought patents were really good for innovation; that it was actually the small guys (maybe he was thinking “Eolas”) who are making the big money out of them and that the big guys are not the main beneficiaries. But they offer a “good defence”. The audience did not seem to agree. Somewhat worryingly, Ballmer also said they were currently working with the European Commission on the issue, though I’m not sure at what level or stage. He did stress that they are keen to see improvements to the patents systems, in both the US and Europe.

When asked about the Trusted Computing initiative and whether it was ongoing or not; Ballmer responsed saying that Microsoft have “revamped” the development plan, and that some of technologies for trusted computing and virtualisation overlap. These were now being worked on, with that in mind.

During all of his answers, he was able to quote a huge range of facts and figures pretty easily, and seems like an excellent performer with an audience. As much as I disagree with nearly everything he said, he put his opinions and aswers accross very well, and I’m glad I went to see him in person.

One Reply to "A morning with Ballmer"


jmason  on October 7, 2005

‘they are keen to see improvements to the patents systems, in both the US and Europe.’

FWIW, it appears that here in the US, MS did a lot of lobbying for this year’s patent reform proposals, which were looking promising until the biotech industry blew them away. in other words, MS and open source agreed on something, for once ;)

I’m quite sure MS and many other big commercial software companies now recognise that software patent is Mutual Assured Destruction of our industry — they’re still filing furiously, because they feel that everyone else is, too, but they’d prefer not to.

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