Microsoft was never an exciting company to me as a kid. I grew up excited by Commodore with their GEOS, early Atari computers and consoles, and the original Macintosh computer. I was fascinated by Sun and Silicon Graphics workstations, running X Windows across multiple machines. The NeXT workstations made early Windows machines seem primitive. When I first worked with SQL Server, it felt like a half-finished product that wasn't stable on OS/2. Microsoft felt like a pedestrian company that was good for my career, and was trying to grow, but they weren't exciting.
Some of that changed in the late 90s as Microsoft embraced the Internet and helped it grow with the ActiveX system. For better or worse, ActiveX seemed to bring life to web sites in a way that Java and other techniques couldn't. We could argue about the damage that systems like ActiveX and Visual Basic 6 did in terms of application performance and maintainability, but without a doubt these tools caused an explosion of development and no end of work for those of us in technology.
Developers, developers, developers was exciting and was a great mantra. I believed that Microsoft had really hit upon the key when I heard that. Woo developers, help them build applications, and let the excitement grow. I watched SQL Server mature with it's expansion into BI areas. I saw Microsoft create the XBOX platform, and build a much better Office Suite than I'd had with Lotus, AmiPro, and others. Microsoft had a time during my career when I thought they were really going to dominate the world of computing.
However I wasn't thrilled when Steve Ballmer took over. He wasn't a geek, and wasn't one of us. Slowly I felt that the company lost its way. Mr. Ballmer talks about some of his regrets in a piece this week, one of which was Longhown. That project dragged on for years and become the debacle that was Windows Vista. During this same time, SQL Server dragged, taking 5 years to get SQL Server 2005 released. Office seemed to stagnate, offering little reason to upgrade, other than because others were upgrading. The company felt lost, and paled in comparison to the excitement generated by Google and then Apple during the last 12 years.
As I read the quotes and thoughts in the piece, I have to admit that Microsoft really has quietly advanced. They have had successes and lots of growth, even if the stock price hasn't skyrocketed. They've invested in platforms, research, and technology, internally and through acquisitions, that may help the company maintain its position as a technology leader for some time. For every misstep like aQuantive, Danger and Ray Ozzie, there are advances like Azure and Dynamics. Windows has continued to grow inside enterprises and I rarely see the complaints over scale and capabilities that I remember from early in my career.
Were the Steve Ballmer years a success or failure for Microsoft? I think I'd call it a maintenance time. Like the manager he is, I think Mr. Ballmer managed the company, without ruining it, but without creating much excitement either.