Remember a sweaty Steve Ballmer jumping up and down shouting "Developers! Developers! Developers!" at a Windows conference?
The reason he was quite so sweaty? He was running a 100 degree fever but refused to skip a scheduled appearance.
When Steve Ballmer bounced onto a stage proclaiming "I love this company," he meant it. He was never afraid to show his enthusiasm, whether it was making a comedy video with Bill Gates or relieving his frustrations at losing key employees to the competition by tossing around the office furniture.
He routinely gave out his email address, and if you fired off an email to Ballmer, you could easily tell if you'd got a response directly from him or from one of his assistants. Authentic replies were short to the point of being abrupt. Perfect spelling and complete sentences were a dead giveaway that he'd handed it over to someone else to deal with.
When Microsoft set up a "buddy program" to connect partner companies with someone on the inside to help them navigate the complexities of the company, Ballmer insisted on putting his name in the hat - and some company got a tireless advocate on the other end of the phone.
Ballmer went to a friend's wedding and promised to fix their computer. After spending the weekend working on it, he flew back with the XP-era desktop PC in his carry on, carried it into work, and dumped it on the desk of then Windows head Jim Allchin with instructions to fix it. Allchin called it a humbling experience: "That machine was so owned, it was unbelievable."
The same enthusiasm led to unfortunate statements, like telling the press most music on iPods was stolen (true but nobody wants to hear it) and calling Linux a "cancer … in an intellectual property sense". Again, that's an accurate description of the viral nature of open source licences like the GPL, but it's a typical ballsy Ballmerish way of putting it.
He had a phenomenal grasp of sales and operations and he had key figures on the tip of his tongue, but often what people saw was a sales guy full of gusto pretending to smash an employee's iPhone.
His sense of humour didn't often show in public. Practising for a keynote where Microsoft would show Linux running in a virtual machine for the first time, shortly after he had a health scare, the techie running the demo launched not one but dozens of Linux windows, popping up all over the screen.
In mock horror Ballmer is said to have clutched his chest and staggered across the stage. Concerned staff rushed towards him, only to see him stagger the other way, gasping for breath. Eventually they caught up, only to find him breathless with laughter at the joke.
Snatching triumph from disaster
Calling his tenure at Microsoft a disaster fundamentally misunderstands the challenges Microsoft faces, and the wider economic situation. You can refer to the stock price as stagnant - or you can look at it the context of credit crunches and recessions, starting with the dotcom crash that happened just a few months after he took over in 2000 and the DoJ lawsuit against the company, and view it of something as an achievement to keep it flat in the face of a stock market that took the steady stream of profits for granted.
Despite all the complaints, Ballmer doubled profits and almost tripled revenue (from US$25 to US$70 billion a year) while running Microsoft. Exchange, SQL Server, System Center, Visual Studio, Windows Server, Hyper-V, Office – from the landmark 2003 release to Office 365, Xbox, Windows Phone, Windows 7, Lync, Azure, SkyDrive, acquisitions like Perceptive Pixel and Skype and Yammer: those are all successes that happened under Ballmer, many of them billion dollar businesses.
Skype seemed pricey at $8.5 billion for a company with $800 million in sales, but that's now up to US$2 billion this year.
Under Bill Gates, despite his famous involvement in every project (he participated in every product review), Microsoft wasn't exactly focused. If the much-vaunted Courier project had shipped, that would have made something like five platforms competing with Windows - Windows CE, Windows Mobile, Xbox, the Media Room IPTV system Microsoft recently sold, and all the different flavours of Windows Embedded.
Whether successful or not, those multiple platforms meant Microsoft was reinventing the wheel again and again - and ignoring the lesson of Windows NT. When Microsoft merged the kernel behind its server and desktop operating systems, it was able to develop key systems like network and file systems once and use them in two or three places.
That's a great way to take advantage of the scale of different markets. Putting the same kernel inside Windows and Windows Server and Azure and Windows Phone and Xbox One lets Microsoft build difficult things once instead of five times. It's the same principle as the One Microsoft reorg Ballmer announced recently: do things together when it makes sense instead of doing the same thing in multiple teams.
Failing too slowly
In interviews after he announced his plan to leave, Ballmer called the "loopedy-loo" around Longhorn his biggest regret. Microsoft spent years investing in a hugely ambitious new operating system that it never delivered, changing course halfway through and throwing away years of work to deliver something much less visionary that only ran well on brand new PCs, with a compromised version for cheaper hardware.
The Vista Basic disappointment, and subsequent lawsuit, was something Ballmer was responsible for only in that he trusted the leaders of the Windows team (put in place by Bill Gates) to make the right decision; when questions were raised and Ballmer asked if they should rethink the plan, those leaders said no - and like a good leader, Ballmer backed them.
When the decision proved wrong, he put Steven Sinofsky in place to fix things. That gave us Windows 7, one of Microsoft's most successful products ever.
Internet Explorer languishing on version 6 for so many years? Another decision made by the same Windows leaders that Bill Gates put in charge. Again, Ballmer's mistake was not overriding them sooner.
Similarly, when Photon, the Windows Mobile 7 project, dragged on for years without shipping, Ballmer put Terry Myerson - who had shipped two major versions of Exchange complete with mobile email and negotiated a deal with Apple to get support for that in iPhone - in charge of Microsoft's mobile strategy.
The mistake there was not killing the Kin project at the same time. Probably for political reasons, first J Allard then Andy Lees were allowed to continue building a phone the carriers had no intention of selling - diverting resources that could have gone to Windows Phone.
And while Windows Phone has certainly struggled against Apple and Google's dominance in phones, it might be starting to turn the corner, at least in the emerging markets where the next big smartphone sales are coming from.
Of course, if Microsoft had seen Android and iPhone coming, they wouldn't have had to claw back a phone market they used to have a major share in. But then neither BlackBerry nor Palm were able to hold off Apple's major investment in mobile and Google's willingness to just give its operating system away.
Certainly, Ballmer - or Microsoft generally - was complacent. He famously dismissed iPhone as not being good at email. But it didn't matter that iPhone wasn't good at email, or even at phone calls in many cases: it was good at being a pocket entertainment system that captured the consumer imagination. As so many times, Microsoft couldn't put the pieces of its many resources in email, entertainment and mobility together to compete.
Ballmer was prepared to back Bing and the other online services for as long as it took to find a niche, and after years of losses, the online services division has started to turn the corner. Buying aQuantive to chase Google's ad search market might have been a good idea if Microsoft had been able to do anything with it. As it was, it turned into a $6 billion writedown (which Ballmer survived, making it hard to see the board firing him for a mere $900 million writedown on Surface).
He backed the Xbox division in the same way, although after the failure of Kin, the years it took to take Zune from a failure to a good product that still didn't sell, and the infamous Xbox 360 red ring of death, that looks like a little too much patience for far too long.
Rivalry, infighting and competing projects were problems he inherited but they remained too common under Ballmer. He never tackled the problem of how bad Microsoft has been at marketing even its successful products. Think about it: how many Microsoft adverts and marketing campaigns can you think of that haven't ended up making you cringe a little?
On the other hand, those issues are also what he put the company reorganisation in place to address. Unless the new CEO immediately reverses the reorg plans, Ballmer's decision to leave isn't the board (which includes Bill Gates, remember) doubting his vision. It's the board backing the reorg by wanting someone in place for the whole of the decade-long change it will take to make it stick.
They have to find someone who understands that they have to balance enterprise (which makes Microsoft the money today) and consumer (because all business technology has to include consumer technology these days, given how much of what we use at work gets brought in from home).
Ballmer spotted this convergence a few years ago, certainly before 2011 when the plan to run Windows on ARM devices was announced, and probably back in 2008 when he approved the plan to move Windows Phone onto the Windows kernel.
Microsoft's problem has never been spotting new ideas - it's been executing them. Often Microsoft has worked on an idea too early (it's been working on tablet devices and smart watches since the 1990s), not getting them right and abandoning the idea only to see another company make the same idea a huge success.
But what Microsoft also famously does is get things right third time. Let's hope that's true of its third CEO.
- Ballmer's not the only successor to a founding tech visionary to face pressures: read why Kate Solomon thinks Apple's Tim Cook should resist the rush to innovate.