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The Surface tablet, targeted squarely at taking down Apple, clearly has him pumped up. Yet it's more than Surface, he said. The "stepped-up competitive energy and vigor" that you see from him and Microsoft is a direct result of --a "reimagining," as Microsoft calls it, of the computing experience, from smartphones and tablets to public and private cloud.
With Windows 8, Ballmer said, Microsoft is at one of those epochal moments in its history.
"The founding of Microsoft, the launch of the PC, Windows 95 and Windows 8 are the four big moments in Microsoft's history," he said. "I can say that. And if you asked me to pick, I can honestly tell you a reasonable case could be made for all of them. The founding was really the dawn of software as a business. The PC really kicked off the mainstreaming of information technology. Windows 95 is really what brought computing to the masses. And Windows 8 is really what takes us into a whole new world of mobile solutions and the cloud."
Ballmer sees Windows 8 changing the character of the company. It is Windows 8 that has brought Microsoft to break from its past and build its own hardware products--putting into question the Wintel model that was once the foundation of the $70 billion company. Ballmer called Windows 8 the "next step" with both customers and the competition.
"Gloves are off. Let's go, baby," he exclaimed. "Bring it!"
The stakes are high. Some partners say Windows 8 and Surface are make-or-break bets. They also say how big a role Microsoft will play in their business--and in businesses of all kinds--will depend on those bets and on just what kind of application traction the company gets with its new Metro graphical user interface on tablets and smartphones.
As for Ballmer, who some solution providers say has been more focused on products than on partners in recent years, how Microsoft executes his vision to take the company into the next generation of cloud, tablets and smartphones could well determine his fate as CEO.
Ballmer's big wager on making Microsoft a cloud superpower is backed up by the biggest product refresh in the Redmond, Wash., company's history. In the space of 12 months, Microsoft is swapping out nearly every single product in its portfolio with a new release. The biggest bang will come from Windows 8 (to be available Oct. 26), but among the other releases are Systems Center 2012, SQL Server 2012, Windows Server 2012, Office 2013, SharePoint 15, Surface, Visual Studio 2012, Windows Phone 8, SkyDrive, Yammer, Azure Infrastructure-as-a-Service, Dynamics, Windows Intune and even Kinect.
All of it will be tied together with Metro, which is designed to allow consumers or professionals to move seamlessly from home to office, office to home, from public to private or hybrid cloud. And it comes with what by any account is a huge set of financial incentives aimed at tilting the cloud computing landscape in its favor. Microsoft is upping the incentives it will pay to partners by $200 million to $4.2 billion for its 2013 fiscal year, which began July 1. The numbers for the company with the world's largest partner footprint (Microsoft's partner ecosystem generates $609 billion in annual revenue, according to research firm IDC) are impressive: Altogether, Microsoft's cloud and solution incentive spend will be up 40 percent for its current fiscal year.