Microsoft's new man needs to quickly forget the last one

I know I'm late to this bit of news, but Satya Nadella is the new CEO of Microsoft. It's a succession that sees a quiet man in Nadella replacing the walking megaphone that was Steve Ballmer, a man whose legacy is lined with missed opportunities and technological stagnation. Despite the uphill climb, new leadership may propel Microsoft to more than just a "me, too" company clinging to revenue streams that are already showing signs of erosion.

Those who know me well personally and professionally are well aware of my harsh criticism towards Ballmer, which isn't rooted in a personal dislike, by the way. If anything, I find him entertaining and engaging because he's like the comedic executive who doesn't need a script or teleprompter when he hits the stage. It all comes flowing out of the passion pooled in his heart. The man lives and breathes Microsoft, and no one can claim he's faking it. Heck, he's perspired through several shirts along the way, a fact evidenced on more than a few videos on YouTube.

My contention and criticism of Ballmer is more about the substance behind his evangelism, which I always felt was played down during his time at the helm. It's perfectly fine to routinely point out that "we make great products", but when you admonish what competitors are doing — while they're doing it much better than you are — you don't look like a CEO, you just look foolish and petulant. This is the guy who said the iPhone had "no chance of gaining significant market share" and that the MacBook Air was doomed because it had no optical drive. If he was just playing us all, he did a stellar job. But I doubt it. He's a man who wears his heart on his sleeve and isn't afraid to speak his mind.

Except that when he did speak his mind, there was no vision to be found. Ballmer may get some credit for steering Microsoft onto its current course towards a hardware and services company, but the jury is still out on whether he deserves it or not. His leadership style and the cronyism and ass-kissing it indentured were laid out vividly in this excellent Vanity Fair story from 2012. Innovative ideas weren't rewarded, loyalty was. And in a team where there were no weak links, one had to be culled anyway. There are famous stories that may or may not be true. I'll never know for sure if Ballmer threw a chair in a rage upon hearing that a high-level executive was leaving for Google, or the even crazier rumour that he had sent in Stephen Elop as a mole to hand over Nokia's phone business on a silver platter.

What I do know is what I've seen with my own eyes and experienced as a journalist in the tech industry. Ballmer was at the helm from the time I was in college to now when I'm established in my career. I watched as Apple came back from the dead to reinvent entire industries and create new ones, changing how the world communicates. I watched as Google turned online search into a mega business that spawned all sorts of creations bearing the company's logo. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, but had Ballmer recognized that Windows and Office weren't going to be 30-year cash cows when he took over in 2000, the fight for mobile supremacy might have gone very differently than the two-horse race it is now. Windows Mobile was at 42% market share in mid-2007 when the iPhone was just hitting the market. Four years later, it was 3%. Now, Windows Phone, a stylish and capable platform, is struggling to gain traction. There was the Surface tablet writedown that cost the company $900 million, the Kin phones that died almost as quickly as they came out and the abomination that was Windows Vista.

I could go on, but my goal here isn't a character assassination, just a feeling of relief that a new face and vision for Microsoft might be represented in Nadella. The company did a nice job introducing him on the Web, helping the public better understand who he is and how he got to this position. Competition is great for the industry and the consumers and businesses that support it, and that holds greater credence at the highest levels, which drive a lot of the narrative and focus.

So, with that, I wish Mr. Nadella luck and hope he succeeds in making Microsoft innovative and flexible. He probably won't make me laugh or shake my head like Ballmer did, but I, like many others in the industry and the marketplace, will be watching with plenty of curiosity to see him carve out his own legacy.