Steve Ballmer Is Back

For the past several years you got the sense that, for Steve Ballmer, heading up Microsoft had become something like taking a trip to the dentist. There was too much pain. And not enough pleasure.

But that’s not the case any longer. Let’s just say that Ballmer has his choppers back.

In an exclusive interview with CRN at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto earlier this month, you could see that there is something different about Ballmer these days. His competitive juices are flowing again. He’s having fun. He’s got that emotional kick that made him and Microsoft co-founder and Chairman Bill Gates the perfect one-two punch. Gates would jab, jab, jab. And then Ballmer would come in with the sales muscle that would knock competitors to the mat.

If you’re looking for a reason for the new, reinvigorated Ballmer, look no further than Windows 8 and Microsoft’s sleek new Surface tablet. Ballmer has been brought back to life by Microsoft’s ambitious plan to tightly integrate hardware and software in its tablet. Nothing is out of the question for the new, more competitive Microsoft. Not even the possibility that it could build a smartphone competitor to Apple’s iPhone.

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The wild card in Ballmer’s re-emergence, however, could well be whether he gets actively involved in some of the critical sales channel decisions facing Microsoft and its solution provider partners. It’s no secret that Ballmer has spent more time focusing on products in recent years. That’s to be expected given that he’s running a $70 billion company.

But for my money, Microsoft’s strength as a channel power is simply not being leveraged to the fullest extent possible as it embarks on its Windows 8-cloud computing-Surface revolution. The decision to not let partners sell the Surface tablet out of the gate and to require them to buy it from or a Microsoft retail store is a mistake. In the interview with CRN, Ballmer talked about not ceding any ground to Apple. Apple is making deeper inroads into the channel every day.

Microsoft has long been criticized for delivering a poor return on investment vs. other strategic vendor partners. What’s more, some partners say, they do business with the software giant because of its huge installed base -- not because they want to.

As if to prove those partners right, Microsoft shows time and time again that it is simply not good at communicating sales strategies and changes. The haphazard way that partners were informed of the decision to discontinue Small Business Server is a case in point. It’s almost as if Microsoft’s strategic partner initiatives are being treated as an afterthought. That’s not good.

Ballmer is back. There is no question about it. That could be bad news for any and all Microsoft competitors. But only if Microsoft gets its channel house in order.

BACKTALK: What do you think Microsoft needs to do to get its channel house in order? Let me know at [email protected].