Ballmer Blunt at Web 2.0 Summit

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer never has any trouble telling people what he really thinks. Attendees of the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco on Tuesday discovered this all over again when John Battelle interviewed Ballmer there.

Not surprisingly, Yahoo was near the top of Battelle’s list of questions. The software giant tried to purchase the company a few years ago, but was rebuffed. That rejection looks foolish now, in the wake of the beleaguered search engine’s woes. So how does Ballmer feel about it now?

In a word, relieved. When Battelle asked Ballmer if he was glad that Yahoo didn’t take his company up on its unsolicited $47.5 billion bid back in 2008, Ballmer laughed and said “You know, times change. When you ask any CEO [that type of question] after the market has fallen apart, it’s ‘hallelujah.’” He added, “Sometimes, you’re lucky.” This comment is interesting in light of reports that Microsoft is putting together another bid to purchase Yahoo, with the help of at least one private equity firm as a partner in the bid. Almost certainly, this time around, the software giant will not bid quite so high as it did last time.  

Even so, Ballmer showed a diplomatic side, saying that Yahoo “still has a lot going for them.” After all, Microsoft’s technology powers Yahoo’s search site now; in return, the software firm gets a respectable share of the search engine’s advertising revenues. According to Yahoo’s recent financial report, that deal has been extended through 2013.

Ballmer got nastier when the topic turned to Google’s and Apple’s smartphones. While he admitted that Apple has done “some nice things…with Siri [a speech-activated virtual assistant],” he noted that Microsoft has “been doing the same kinds of things for years.” When Battelle asked Ballmer why a customer should buy a Windows phone instead of an iPhone, Ballmer claimed the Windows Phone 7 offers a superior user interface; “it’s not a sea of icons,” but puts the user’s information “front and center” instead.

But Ballmer reserved his strongest venom for Google’s Android. "You don’t need to be a computer scientist to use a Windows phone. I think you do to use an Android phone," he said.

When Battelle turned to the question of whether Microsoft will create its own smartphone hardware, however, Ballmer turned uncharacteristically coy. If Microsoft did enter this market, it would be competing directly with Apple in one of the latter’s strongest areas – and quite possibly with Google, if the search engine’s purchase of Motorola Mobility clears antitrust hurdles. Ballmer tried to dodge the question by noting simply that his company is working “very hard with manufacturers to make sure there is a wide range of Windows 8 products." When pressed specifically by Battelle as to whether Microsoft would build its own phone, Ballmer answered with a laugh and a vague “We’ve been focused on building hardware innovation, and we will continue to do so," which could be interpreted any one of a number of ways. Sometimes, Ballmer isn’t so blunt after all.  

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