It can’t be easy having nearly every word you say in public quoted and scrutinized. But such is the life of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
Redmond’s oft-ridiculed head honcho has been known to open his mouth and insert his loafer. It’s not as if he’s offensive; he’s usually just recklessly honest and he tends to generalize. Sometimes he has Microsoft PR people scrambling for a retraction. But he usually provokes his enemies and he gets people talking. It’s called trash talk, and he’s pretty good at it.
Trash talk has a rich history in the world of sports, politics, music and business. I believe Muhammad Ali invented it. Larry Bird was great at it. Hillary Clinton’s no slouch. The Gallagher brothers from Oasis weren’t bad.
Add Steve Ballmer. He often says too much though. In the recklessly honest department, there’s this Ballmer zinger from when Windows 7 was announced last fall: “Windows 7 is Windows Vista with cleanup in user interface [and] improvements in performance.” Talk about going against message!
Ballmer is also not a good predictor of tech trends. He has said that the iPhone has no chance of getting any significant market share and that Facebook is just a fad.
Ballmer says these things to protect his company; if he’s wildly wrong, so be it. Most times he’s just belittling the competition (Apple) to prop up Microsoft. However, the Facebook comment, made back in Oct. 2007, was a set up for buying a stake in Facebook.
Lately, he’s been kicking Apple as their Mac sales slip. Maybe he’s been so mouthy lately to make up for Microsoft’s silence during Apple’s snarky “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” TV ads.
About a month ago, he implied strongly that Linux is a bigger threat to Windows than Apple. It’s debatable if this is true, but the comment does make Apple seem like an afterthought.
Last week at a conference in New York, Ballmer went after Apple again with a quote that made Apple buffs livid.
Referring to the Mac sales drops of the past two months:
“Apple gained about one point, but now I think the tide has really turned back the other direction. The economy is helpful. Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment — same piece of hardware — paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that’s a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be.”
The accuracy of this quip was debated by various bloggers. There’s no question that Macs are more expensive than PCs and they both use the same Intel chips and general architecture. But Ballmer didn’t do himself any favors by not mentioning Windows. And also, the fact is Apple users love the Apple design and Mac OS and are some of the most satisfied customers in the world.
But as trash talk, what Ballmer said was effective. He knew the “same piece of hardware” and “$500 more to get a logo” lines would drive the Mac faithful nuts and emphasize the idea that Macs are overpriced. If that was his goal, he achieved it.
But does Ballmer’s trash talk actually help Microsoft? In the short term yes, but ultimately no. If this becomes a mud-slinging contest, people will get turned off. Ballmer will start to look like a bully and an instigator.
But as long as Apple is vulnerable, Ballmer’s gonna take out the trash. Hey, it’s a recession. The gloves are off.