Kara Swisher

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Call: Ballmer on How There Can Be Only One at Microsoft

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Today, Microsoft moved the chairs around in its executive suite, rejiggering the way it organizes itself and its businesses.

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer got on the horn at 12:30 pm PT today to explain it all for us. He had already done so at a meeting of employees earlier, where he told the crowd that he was doing what had worked at the company for big engineering groups.

It’s not the easiest thing to talk about, but Ballmer tried to decomplexify it all by noting earlier in a memo that there is “One Microsoft.”

It is the theme of the day, doubtlessly dreamed up by strategery guy Mark Penn, the former political guru of varying degrees of success (and not so much success). In fact, it sounds exactly like what you’d put on a bumper sticker or poster.

Personally, I had never thought that Microsoft was two or three companies, just a single gigantically large one with a whole lot of politics.

Not so anymore! It’s one! Namaste! Also, vote for Ballmer!

Here we go:

12:30 pm: Ballmer started pretty much on time to talk about the news that he was shifting around the company’s management and structure.

“This is certainly a big day for all of us,” he said, noting Microsoft was “excited to deliver more” with the new set-up.

He basically went over the highlights of the long strategy memo and also email to employees, concluding his opening remarks by declaring, “We are one Microsoft.”

12:38 pm: Time for Q&A comes up quickly and questions started off asking about how financial reporting would change. It’s an obvious query, since it could cover over big losses at places like the Bing search service. But when you’re one, everyone gets a little pain.

CFO Amy Hood noted that it will not for now change its financial reporting, including when Microsoft reports next week. But, according to sources, it most certainly will, just not yet.

Ballmer had his new team — which is pretty much the old team at Microsoft, but with new titles — there to answer his questions for him, so they did.

That included marketing head Tami Reller and COO Kevin Turner.

But they were all careful to speak without calling a lot of attention to themselves, with no one saying much of anything really as yet. After all, what can you say when you don’t know how this is going to shake out?

12:47 pm: In fact, Ballmer sounded a bit tired on the call, rather than the pugnacious and overstimulated tone those who cover him are used to. No monkey-boy dance in sight.

There’s a question about where the device portfolio will expand. Ballmer demurred, but touted existing products such as the 82-inch Windows tablet that apparently knocks people’s socks off.

I want to ask a question about how exhausting it must be to overhaul such a behemoth in this day and age and still have those imps at Google run circles around Microsoft with their goofy Glasses and loony Wi-Fi balloons that invariably enchant the media.

How does anyone enchant these days without a gimmick?

Suddenly, I am tired too, especially as Ballmer handed off to yet another exec. Hardware head Julie Larson-Green, then OS head Terry Myerson, then Apps and Service head Qi Lu.

It felt like some sort of collective at this point, as if I have landed on a planet where there is an alternate Microsoft, ruled by a council of elders. (Elders is probably not a good visual for an aging tech giant, but I just saw the new “Superman” movie and they had one of those.)

Contemplating this, I completely missed the dull question about Azure. I needed a council of elders right then to take over this blog.

12:55 pm: Okay, a good question is asked on infighting at Microsoft, which is legendary. (To be fair, it’s legendary at most tech companies, but the software giant is Olympic at it.)

Ballmer noted — with an assist from Qi Lu — that Microsoft now has to be more like a football team, which has to coordinate plays, rather than a baseball team, where it is more about individual achievement. As many are aware, I know zip about sports, so this is lost on me.

“We need the whole group to be involved in the management,” he said, rather than just a few powerful players.

It is a collective! I suddenly miss the old days when co-founder Bill Gates just yelled and everyone jumped.

Ballmer then got another financial question about how Microsoft was going to account for all this.

That too is going to go to a one kind of thing, although Hood noted that accountability will still be in force, even if the company decides — and it will — to mash all its numbers together a whole lot more.

But these are details, in which the devil is.

And then it was over, with very little pomp or circumstance, given the big nature of the moves today.

Message of the day: There can be only one, apparently, but with many voices, which might prove to be Microsoft’s biggest challenge of all going forward.


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