Global CIO: Ballmer Blasts IBM For All The Wrong Reasons

Days before launching Microsoft's "New Efficiency" strategy, Steve Ballmer took some swipes at IBM and its strategy, which is bizarre because Ballmer's taking Microsoft down a path IBM's already on.
Maybe Microsoft's going to acquire long-time partner Accenture and become a high-end services player? Well, that could be interesting, but it would also give credence to the very IBM strategy that Ballmer is attempting to belittle: moving into higher-value, higher-margin businesses. Plus, Microsoft's vast network of highly influential channel partners would screech like roasting cats if Microsoft were to make such a move. So no, I don't think that's it, either.

Could it be cloud computing that's the source of Ballmer's bilious Big Blue broadside? I think that's it: the cloud is the one area where Microsoft and IBM could very well be on a collision course, and Ballmer wants to spread the word in these early days that IBM's become too narrow, too confined, too unimaginative, and too risk-averse to offer any meaningful innovation and value. And the Times blog seems to inkle in that direction as well:

Mr. Ballmer's comments were blunt enough. And then there's Bob Muglia, the president of Microsoft's server and tools businesses, commenting on I.B.M.’s cloud strategy. "I don't think I.B.M. is keeping up," Mr. Muglia said. That comment came during part of an interview last week about the cloudy companies that keep Microsoft up at night. As you can tell, I.B.M. failed to make the nightmare list.

So if we follow that thread, it looks like Ballmer and Muglia are reaching back into a (very) old IBM playbook by trying to spread a little cloud FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about IBM's ability to be a player in that rapidly emerging and deeply strategic market.

The problem with that approach is that CIOs and other customers are sick and tired of hearing vendors berate each other and belittle competing approaches when the real issue for those CIOs is what can YOU do for me NOW, other than tell me in the vaguest possible terms how crappy my other choices are. And that's where Ballmer's comments in the Times blog crash head-on into the ideas he lays out in "New Efficiency," including this key passage:

At the same time, these technologies streamline access to information no matter where it is stored and enable people to work together securely no matter where they are located. This new generation of business solutions also provides improved mobile computing capabilities so people who work in a branch office, at home, or on the road can be as productive as employees who work at corporate headquarters.

Most important, a new wave of IT technologies offers advanced tools that enable employees to transform insights into innovations that address unmet market opportunities and meet unfulfilled customer needs.

This powerful combination of greater productivity and improved capacity for innovation is how IT enables businesses to do more.

IBM's been doing this for several years. Steve Ballmer might not like that, but that doesn't make it any less so. Through Global Services, through its intense move into business analytics, through its work on business-process optimization, through its middleware and entire integrated software stack, and through its aggressive move into financing, IBM is doing all the things Ballmer says Microsoft is about to do to meet the new realities of our times.

I have no doubt that Microsoft and Steve Ballmer, fully and unambiguously at the helm of what used to be Bill Gates's company, can do great things for CIOs with these new products and new focus and vision. But they do themselves no good, and their customers no good, by making shallow and ultimately silly claims about how IBM's a moron and it's feet are too skinny and it's become so risk-averse that you can watch it shriveling up into irrelevance.

Steve Ballmer can't seriously believe those things about IBM. So he should stop insulting the intelligence of his customers by saying them publicly, and he should instead pound relentlessly on the theme of all the great things that Microsoft can do and is doing for its customers.

Because that would be a new efficiency in strategic communication that customers are likely to reward.

GlobalCIO Bob Evans is senior VP and director of InformationWeek's Global CIO unit.

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