Microsoft announced today that Steve Ballmer is stepping down as CEO some time in the next year, and you gotta feel sorry for the guy. In the theatre, they say: Never follow an act involving children. Ballmer had to follow an even tougher act: Bill Gates. Gates is a master of the second act, having done two star turns: first as a software entrepreneur (he pretty much invented the part, which has been widely imitated but never equaled) and CEO, and then as a philanthropist. In recent years, Gates has managed to turn his own reputation around, while Ballmer never was able to do the same for Microsoft, which is now widely perceived as stodgy, slow-moving, under-imaginative and even incompetent. That perception may be unfair, but if so, then the widespread existence of such a mistaken impression is itself a failure of the company's second act.
It's ironic that Ballmer's resignation, and all the bad publicity that comes with it, come so soon after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos won plaudits for buying—and therefore, possibly, saving—The Washington Post. Way back in 1995, Ballmer made a bet on serious content on the Internet by deciding to bet on what became Slate, which is now firmly established as not just part of the internet culture, but part of the culture of journalism itself. When, a couple of years ago, the Washington Post Company decided to divest itself of some of its media properties (this was before the Post decided to divest itself of itself), it was Newsweek that was pitched overboard. Slate stayed put.
Microsoft had sold Slate to the Post several years ago. The rumor around the Microsoft campus always was that Slate was Bill Gates's baby and that Ballmer had little or no interest in it. Whatever the truth about that, Ballmer made an ideal proprietor: writing checks (small ones, to be sure) and never, ever interfering or even threatening to interfere with the content. Those two things are all you can ask of a proprietor, and Ballmer passed those tests with apparent ease. As the founder of Slate, I spent seven happy years under Ballmer's supposedly dictatorial wing. The current editor of The New Republic got his first job out of college at Slate (he even moved to Seattle). And over the years TNR and Slate have enjoyed much talent-sharing of various types. In all those years, none of us has felt the sting of Ballmer's notorious lash. Here's wishing him a great next act.