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Is Ballmer's departure the cost of Microsoft's missteps?

Steve Ballmer and Microsoft claim the CEO's departure is all about proper timing while the company transforms itself into a supplier of devices and services. I'm not so sure.

Microsoft made a surprise announcement this morning that its divisive CEO, Steve Ballmer, would be stepping down within the next 12 months once a worthy successor is chosen. Many have been calling for Ballmer’s resignations for years, as they watched Microsoft make misstep after misstep, especially in the mobile market. But, according to today’s press release, Ballmer’s exit is all about timing and the company’s recent reorganization.

"There is never a perfect time for this type of transition, but now is the right time," Ballmer said in the press release. "We have embarked on a new strategy with a new organization and we have an amazing Senior Leadership Team. My original thoughts on timing would have had my retirement happen in the middle of our company’s transformation to a devices and services company. We need a CEO who will be here longer term for this new direction."

Fair enough.

Ballmer’s explanation may be completely true, but the timing of this announcement is questionable to say the least, with the imminent release of Windows 8.1 and the Xbox One. I’m purely speculating here, but my gut is telling me Ballmer is being forced into early retirement due to Windows 8’s terrible debut, the XBox One team’s recent fumbling and flip-flops, and Windows Phone’s poor adoption rates, especially in the U.S. Microsoft’s trajectory in too many markets is simply too uncertain for the company to remain under the same leadership.

Late last year, technology industry analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy said this in the lead-up to Windows 8’s release:

"This is going to be his defining moment. Ballmer's legacy will be looked at as what he did or didn't do with Windows 8. If Windows 8 is not a success, a lot of people will be looking for Microsoft to make a change at the CEO level."

As for the "change at the CEO level," it turns out he was right. As for Ballmer's legacy, I wholeheartedly agree. Windows 8 was supposed to lay the foundation for a unified experience across desktops PC, notebooks, game consoles, and ultra-mobile devices. Microsoft was, and technically still is, in a unique position to transform all types of computing, yet again it seems the company has done little but alienate its partners and consumers the past year or so, damaging its already shaky reputation.

Whatever the real reason for Ballmer’s departure, it’s probably a good thing he’s leaving. Although the company has stumbled on the consumer side as of late, it has enjoyed many successes under Ballmer, like Windows 7, the Xbox 360, and a myriad of enterprise-class products, to name just a few. The mere mention of his retirement this morning sent Microsoft’s stock surging upwards of 8%, however. That speaks volumes about Ballmer’s popularity and the public’s confidence in his leadership abilities.

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