Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

Ben Thompson: What if Steve Ballmer ran Apple?

August 26, 2013: 7:41 AM ET

A former Windows product manager puts his finger on the difference between MSFT and AAPL.

Ballmer. Photo: Wikicommons.

Ballmer. Photo: Wikicommons.

FORTUNE -- If you read only one story Monday morning about Steve Ballmer's departure from Microsoft (MSFT), skip Kara Swisher's gossipy piece about how it happened more precipitously than Microsoft let on and go straight to Ben Thompson's If Steve Ballmer ran Apple on his stratechery blog.

In this provocative thought experiment, Thompson -- a former Microsoft Windows product manager -- imagines what Apple's new CEO would do over the next five years, starting with the rollout of the iPhone 5C:

Ballmer .. would push out the low cost version I advocated and attack non-subsidized markets. Ballmer would do more than catch enterprise accounts that fall in his lap; he would aggressively court CIOs and make changes to the iPhone to accommodate them. Ballmer would expand the iPad range to multiple screen sizes and price points, and would push for every school district in the world to standardize on them, far more aggressively than Apple is today. Ballmer would leverage iTunes, and all those credit cards, by making a play for payments and identity. As for computers, well, the XMac might even become a reality.

There would, of course, be handsome incentives to make this happen. Apple's sales team would be hugely expanded, and their pay directly connected to the above becoming a reality. The product teams would be pedal to the metal filling in all the holes in Apple's current lineup, and marketing would be aggressively targeting everyone from CIOs to developing nations. Apple would give both China Mobile and NTT Docomo whatever concessions necessary to gain access to their customers, and Apple's carrier base would double, perhaps even triple to Samsung's level.

The revenue and profits would flow.

Thompson's punchline -- which gets to the heart of the difference between Microsoft and Apple (AAPL) -- is that if Ballmer ran Apple, the company would never again ship a disruptive new product.

Part of this he attributes to the innovator's dilemma -- Clay Christensen's idea that a company focused on maximizing profits can't pursue a successful new product because of its impact on existing profit margins. Part of it is the kind of people who are attracted to and stay with a company like that.

But if Apple's success has proved anything, Thompson suggests, it's that measurables like profits and incentive bonuses aren't the half of it. "Things like design can't be measured," he writes, "nor can user experience. How do you price delight, or discount annoyance?"

In the consumer market, it's the immeasurables that matter. It's the ability to surprise and delight, and create evangelists. It's about creating something that developers demand access to, and that consumers implicitly trust. The consumer market is about everything you can't measure, everything Microsoft's legion of mini-Ballmer's can't see and will never appreciate.

It turns out that all of Ballmer's good qualities, especially when it came to maximizing revenue and profits, were also his worst qualities, especially as the consumer market came to dominate computing. And, to Microsoft's short-term benefit but long-term detriment, the incentives Microsoft gave its employees to achieve Ballmer's aims choked out the sensitivity to truly understand what's next."

By contrast, Thompson offers Jony Ive's set speech on Apple's core values:

Our goal isn't to make money. Our goal absolutely at Apple is not to make money. This may sound a little flippant, but it's the truth…Our goal and what gets us excited is to try to make great products. We trust that if we are successful people will like them, and if we are operationally competent we will make revenue, but we are very clear about our goal.

That's not something you'd ever hear Steve Ballmer say.

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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