I think it finally happened. We'd all been expecting it for a while now, but not quite so suddenly or emphatically: Steve Ballmer has gone completely insane.
It happened at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference. Somebody must have asked him why Microsoft waited three years before attempting to take on the iPhone and Android with Windows Phone 7. According to CNN, Ballmer replied: "We're early; there's no question we're early.... I think we kind of nailed it. When you see it, you just go 'ooooh'."
I suppose if we're talking geological time, then Ballmer's right, Microsoft is on the cusp of the smartphone epoch, and the dinosaurs just went for a dip in the tar pits. But in a market where a three-month-old device needs to be checked for liver spots and signs of dementia, spotting the competition three-plus years and then coming up with something that almost meets the smartphone standards set in 2007 is not exactly being early. It's certainly not "nailing" it -- unless we're talking about a coffin.
Also, quoth Ballmer:
"Make no mistake about it, we're all in," Ballmer declared. "I get all kinds of questions about 'what if you don't do this or that,' or blah, blah, blah. BOOM, baby, that's what we're going to do!"
BOOM, baby -- either a small incendiary device just exploded or John Madden entered the room.
Now, I haven't played with a Windows 7 phone, so all I know is what people tell me. Reviewers by and large agree that Microsoft has made strides with Windows Phone 7, while at the same time noting major gaps -- like the lack of copy and paste, multitasking, or support for Flash. In all, it seems like a fine but flawed phone.
Fine but flawed isn't going to cut it. Fine but flawed doesn't win horse races. They don't put the Miss America crown on the head of the girl with pretty eyes and a nose like a rutabaga. You don't come back from the dead (or Windows Mobile 6, which is worse than being dead) and topple Apple, Google, or BlackBerry with a phone that's fine but flawed. You have to do better than that.
And you certainly don't do it if you think you're "early" and that you've beaten everyone else to the punch. That's delusional thinking at best.
It's possible that this is merely Fear Undercertainty & Doubt 2.0. Or maybe Ballmer thought "Heck, I'm the CEO of an enormous tech company. My first name is Steve. If the reality distortion field works for Jobs, it can work for me too."
But I'm thinking he's starting to lose it. I'm serious.
Think about it this way. You just lost the guy who was supposed to drag your company out of the last century and into the new one. He was preceded out the door by a half-dozen of your top lieutenants -- the ones who weren't already lured away by Google or Facebook. Financial analysts are asking you point blank if your company is, if not toast, then possibly a soggy bagel with mold around the edges. Despite buckets of profits, journalists are writing your obituary.
You'd probably go crazy too. And he's never exactly been the most even-keeled guy on good days. (Remember the Steve Ballmer Monkey Dance video?)
If I had an office anywhere near the C-level on Microsoft's campus, I'd want to make sure all the sharp implements were carefully hidden and all the chairs were nailed to the floor.
At least I have my Halloween costume all set. I'm going as Frankenballmer. He's just the kind of guy you could see laughing maniacally while chasing people down the street with an axe. I can't think of anything scarier.
Who do you think is the scariest person in tech? E-mail me: email@example.com.