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Global CIO: An Open Letter To Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

You said Microsoft's all-in cloud commitment puts more power in individuals' hands. But your heavy-handed iPhone ban severely undercuts the credibility you crave.

Dear Steve: I enjoyed your recent speech at the University of Washington as you spoke passionately and repeatedly about how cloud computing puts power, opportunity, choice, and decision-making in the hands of individuals. You spoke of all those attributes as valuable and essential and good, and you emphasized that Microsoft's "all-in" commitment to cloud computing demonstrates your company's unflagging and unconditional support pushing more and more power out to the individual.

Your advocacy for that new sense of openness was refreshing and invigorating—heck, you even managed to say some nice things in there about Apple! Maybe that compliment was part of a nascent effort to align grudgingly but gradually with Apple against Google, maybe it was your attempt to play to the audience of college-age Apple fans, and maybe it was just a slip of the tongue.

But maybe it represented what you really believe: that the tech world has changed profoundly in the past few years and that the closed mindset Microsoft has shown—for example, its long-time refusal to give enterprise customers any tools that would help them integrate Windows and Linux—will be increasingly difficult or even impossible to sustain in the emerging world of deeply integrated systems, mashups, web-native thinking and behavior, and of course the great leveler of cloud computing.

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Of those alternatives, Steve, I hope your motivation sprang from the final point because while your talk at UW marked a seminal moment for Microsoft—the point at which its CEO declared unambiguously that Microsoft intends to not only join but also lead the global cloud-computing marketplace—your actions will always speak even louder than your words. And in today's rapidly evolving IT business, heavy-handed attempts to stifle customer choice are perceived as more than just archaic and annoying—they underscore a message that the company wielding them is afraid to compete, afraid to innovate, and afraid to venture out without conditions into this new and customer-driven and totally heterogeneous world.

In that context, Steve, it seems that the situation brought to light in a recent Wall Street Journal piece about your company's unofficial but deep-seated policy against Microsoft employees using iPhones at work—what the article's headline called "forbidden fruit"—provides you with a perfect opportunity to publicly and forcefully show that you are willing to do more than just talk about pushing the power of choice out to individuals.

You should tell your company and the world that since you believe your employees are among the smartest and most tech-savvy people on the planet, you therefore trust their judgment about which tech stuff is the best, and accordingly you are lifting the unofficial-but-nevertheless-official iPhone ban for Microsoft employees.

In fact, Steve, you should go one better than that and tell the world you're getting an iPhone yourself so you can understand at a visceral level why it's won so many hearts and minds and created such a passionate following. And that you're going to take those insights and combine them with the other insights that your Microsoft colleagues have gained and blend all that knowledge with Microsoft's technical and engineering skills to continue enhancing and improving the mobile experience for your customers.

You've gained some nice cred with your new Windows Phone 7, and you've now got a great opportunity to prove to the world that you have nothing to fear from Apple and its iPhone or from RIM and the Blackberry or from any other mobile device and OS. Because, after all, as you said at UW—it's all about putting more choices and more autonomy in the hands of individuals and customers, right?

While we're on this subject, Steve, I'd like to suggest that you sit down with some of your top execs and look at a couple of anecdotes from that Journal story and see if that's how you want the world to think of you and your company. For myself, these two anecdotes from that story position both you and Microsoft as rigid, backward-looking, reactive, and afraid to compete—and in today's global economic environment, whether in the consumer market or at the enterprise level, that's a terrible perception to have. Check out these two excerpts from the article and tell me if I'm wrong:

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