Book Review: Microsoft Rebooted

Microsoft Rebooted: How Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer Reinvented Their Company

By Robert Slater
Portfolio, August 2004
272 pages, $24.95

Would you have had the guts to do it?

To walk away from a successful enterprise, just because circumstances had changed? That is the question to keep in mind as you read this account of the change of management at Microsoft Corp., written by Robert Slater, a former Time magazine reporter and author of Jack Welch and the GE Way.

Every time a successful company faces a new obstacle—increased competition, product obsolescence or living through an industry strategic-inflection point—the prescription is always the same: You need to think differently. And yet rarely (while times are still good, anyway) is top management truly willing to change. That raises a fundamental question: How radically can an organization’s thinking change if the people doing the thinking don’t themselves change?

Clearly, as Microsoft was about to enter the new millennium, something had to change.

Sales growth, which had been double or triple the industry average, was just keeping pace.

New products were harder to come by. (The next upgrade to Windows is long overdue.)

Competition was increasingly tough. Microsoft’s push into games and television had not been all that successful, and Linux just wouldn’t go away. Microsoft’s solution to the problem? Gates turned over day-to-day operating control to Steve Ballmer, his former Harvard classmate, close friend and long-time Microsoft employee. That may not seem like the most radical of solutions, but the fact is that Gates owns more than 10 percent of Microsoft’s outstanding shares—worth about $30 billion at this writing—so he’s more than entitled to have a say in picking his own replacement. Besides, the bigger point is that Gates did pick a replacement, rather than simply try to approach things differently himself.

Gates’ decision to replace himself is the most interesting part of Microsoft’s plan, and Slater, by concentrating on that one act, more than makes up for the flaws in this book. But there are flaws. Slater spends too much time on the government’s antitrust suit against Microsoft, apparently under the mistaken belief that, since he was given lots of access to what was happening at the time, he needs to report every detail. And while Slater tries to be objective about Gates and Ballmer, both of whom served as primary sources for the book, he veers dangerously close to fawning when he writes about their intelligence and drive. Finally, the book could have used one last editing pass to free it of the many clichés—people are always moving with “lightning speed” and making “life-and-death” decisions.

Still, by concentrating on Gates’ decision to give Ballmer day-to-day control of Microsoft, Slater has focused on the big idea: This is how Gates chose to think differently. He decided Microsoft could gain a fresh perspective by turning over the reins to someone else, as opposed to trying to rewire the way he himself naturally approached situations.

Will Gates’ decision revitalize the company? The book’s subtitle makes this open question seem like a done deal, but it’s not. It’s just as likely that Microsoft will become a “merely” good large company. But it was a gutsy way of dealing with a problem that most profitable companies try to finesse.

You have to ask yourself if your company would handle it the same way.

Paul B. Brown is the author of numerous nonfiction books, including Publishing Confidential published by Amacom.

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