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Microsoft's Ballmer Talks About Google, Yahoo, Apple At MIX

The Microsoft CEO tells a conference of Web developers that his company is an underdog on the Web.

Steve Ballmer sure is energetic. The Microsoft CEO joked, danced, and playfully screamed Thursday during a keynote discussion at Microsoft's MIX conference for Web developers -- even as he labeled Microsoft the underdog on the Web.

"We're in the game, and we're the little engine that could, just working away, working away, working away," Ballmer told interviewer and former Apple employee and evangelist Guy Kawasaki. "In online, yeah, it's Google, Google, Google. I'd say we're the underdog." That's a far cry from as recently as last year, when Ballmer called Google "cute" and a "one-trick pony."

MIX is Microsoft's occasion to show off its latest Web wares and to woo Web developers, and Ballmer, with a bit of urging from blogger Rafael Rivera during an audience questioning segment, repeated a now famous plea to developers. "You want some love right here, right now? You want me to stand up and do that on the MIX stage?" Ballmer said loudly, standing to cheers and pumping his fists. "You want to hear Web developers, Web developers, Web developers!"

Ballmer appeared at ease despite tough questions and digs from Kawasaki throughout the discussion that could have turned the conversation much more awkward, including a reference to court documents alleging that he once threw a chair across a room when told by an employee that he was leaving Microsoft for Google. Ballmer slipped out of that one, and deftly handled tough questions about Yahoo and Windows Vista as well.

"We've made an offer," he said bluntly when asked what's happening with the proposal to buy Yahoo for $31 a share. "We've made an offer. It's out there, baby."

In discussing the deal, Ballmer gave some hints about how a future combined company may look. He hinted that either Yahoo Mail or Hotmail is likely to go away, saying that "it doesn't make sense to have two mail services." He also said that the acquisition of Yahoo, which is a heavy user of open source technologies, would make Microsoft a heavy PHP developer as well as a .Net developer, and suggested that Microsoft wouldn't necessarily shift Yahoo's OpenBSD servers to Windows Server.

Ballmer admitted that Microsoft's choices around Windows Vista's development had hurt application and device compatibility. "I'm not saying there aren't things that customers don't choose to comment on," he said, while playing up Vista's sales success. "We did make the choice to kind of hurt compatibility, and customers have let us know that that was very painful."

Ballmer also put on display Microsoft's complex relationship with Apple, alternately applauding Apple's decision to license ActiveSync to bring Exchange to the iPhone and denigrating Kawasaki's personal MacBook Air. "That thing is heavier than the Toshiba I use," Ballmer said, falling out of his chair as he held the laptop to pretend its weight was pulling him to the ground. "It's missing half the features I need. Where's the DVD drive? I'll have a bake-off with my 'Tosh' and that thing backstage."

Kawasaki once asked if Apple was like a Chihuahua gnawing at Microsoft's leg. Ballmer yipped aloud like the small dog, but praised Apple for developing some good technology and for being a leader in devices and user experience.

At another point, in a dig that may have been directed at either Apple or Google, Ballmer said he often flies commercial, rather than in a private jet. Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page bought a Boeing 767 for their private use, while Apple gave CEO Steve Jobs a Gulfstream in 2000. "Microsoft doesn't buy people airplanes," Ballmer said. "That's that other company."

According to Ballmer, though Microsoft released the first beta version of Internet Explorer 8.0 this week, the browser isn't yet feature complete. "There's a lot more about IE8 to really be told," he said. He implied that renewed competition in a space where Firefox has "built presence and position" has pushed Microsoft to devote more resources to Internet Explorer than it ever has in the past. He also said that Microsoft wasn't developing a new version of Internet Explorer for the Mac.

Ballmer also was asked about Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud and whether Microsoft would be offering similar utility computing resources, perhaps providing the raw computing power of remote Windows Servers as a service. He answered with a quick "yes," though he wouldn't discuss it further. Earlier in the week, Microsoft announced a preview of a data storage and querying service, SQL Server Data Services.

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