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Jobs, Ballmer and Obama: The Criticality of Balance

President Obama’s approval rating is in the toilet, and his recent firing of his lead general in Afghanistan suggests his approval inside his administration is likely not much better than we see outside.

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, has been under fire for a while now and seems unable to get out from under stories of his impending replacement.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, is on fire and — despite problems with suicides in China, AT&T’s stumbles, and App Store approval issues — is on top of the world.

I think this is because while Obama focuses excessively on form but not enough on function and Ballmer on function and not enough on form, Jobs is the only one that blends both effectively. Let’s talk about that this week.

We’ll close with my product of the week: a fascinating online gaming product called “OnLive” that may eventually render obsolete both Apple and Microsoft and prove Oracle’s Larry Ellison right.

Steve Jobs and Balance

Those of us who have been successful in jobs have learned that it isn’t just what you do, it’s how what you do is valued that makes the huge difference in our careers. You can put in 60 hour weeks, but if your boss isn’t happy with what you’ve done, you not only won’t get a raise and a promotion, but you likely won’t keep your job. Some people don’t get that you have to play to perceptions and make those who are important to your future appreciate what you are doing or it won’t make a difference.

Not getting this is why so many hard-working people are laid off or fired. On the other hand, there are those who constantly take credit for others’ work and go out of their way to seek praise but don’t actually do much of anything. They often get better jobs initially but are eventually fired because eventually the fact they didn’t actually accomplish anything catches up with them.

The ideal case is one of balance. Steve Jobs doesn’t hype crappy products, and he doesn’t build strong products and then fail to market them. He builds strong products that he hypes the crap out of. If he did the latter, he could be proud of the products but not the sales, and if he did the former, he might get lines once, but those folks would never buy from Apple again. However, realizing that impression is virtually all of reality, if he shifts to any side, he shifts to the hype side, because he knows that is what will make his boss, the shareholders, happy.

Obama and Form Over Function

President Obama fully gets the need to look positive and be in front of people. He likely would make a good CMO (chief marketing officer), but so far he sucks as a chief executive. This is because when you look under the hype, you don’t see much substance, and little seems to be getting done. The recent firing and replacement of the lead general in Afghanistan showcased the problem. Strangely enough, the public position of that general — that there was no substance behind the positive reports — may have resulted in a focus on the problem that might actually result in some real progress.

But from the various wars, to the economy, to the BP oil spill, you certainly can see strong marketing but very little in regard to actual progress because there is too much focus on the former and not enough on the latter.

What really drove this home was when I did a review of the 2010 Joint Strategic Plan on Intellectual Property Enforcement. It sounds great, it says all the right things, until you realize that it isn’t a plan at all because it has no milestones, not measurable goals — only promises to continue doing whatever everyone is doing and that things will get better. It is nearly 100 percent marketing fluff, and this seems to be the cornerstone of this administration and goes to the core of why Obama started out incredibly popular and is trending to be a one-term president with approval scores that are dropping faster than rocks.

To be successful, he needs to focus on building some substance under all this marketing fluff or virtually everything he has done, which isn’t much, will be undone in a few short years. We had one president who promised to get us to the moon in 10 years, and we got there. We’ve had eight say it was critical we get off oil over a period of 30 years, and we are literally swimming in a sea of oil. Obama is far from the first that has this problem.

Steve Ballmer: Function Over Form

If you step back and actually look at Microsoft the way it was in the late ’90s before Steve Ballmer took over and then look at it today, it is actually in much better shape. In the late ’90s, its enterprise products were an industry joke, it was under attack by the DOJ, and interoperability (critical to the market it was in) was a serious problem both inside and outside the company. It didn’t have any consumer products and probably didn’t really need them.

A little over a decade later, Microsoft leads in interoperability, they have settled virtually all of the old antitrust actions, their enterprise products are often preferred over other offerings, and they still make more profit for every dollar of revenue and more revenue than virtually any legal company on the planet. Those are solid fundamentals. However Apple and the consumer technology market, coupled with the economic downturn, have hurt and changed the metrics surrounding Microsoft. Working hard alone doesn’t get the job done; investors have to value the result highly — and they don’t, at least comparatively, in Microsoft’s case.

This is the exact opposite of Obama’s problem — a lot of functional improvements, but the company lacks the ability to get credit for them. Granted, gadgets like iPads and iPhones are easier than infrastructure products, but it was always up to Microsoft where to focus, and Jobs made better choices and redefined Apple around his skills. Steve Ballmer is actually a friend of mine, and I think he may be making progress, first by having Kathleen Hall do Windows marketing, and second by taking direct action on the kinds of products that have made Steve Jobs shine. We’ll see, we’ll see, but this clearly showcases that function over form works no better than form over function. You get more done with the first and get more initial credit with the second, but ultimately an unbalanced approach fails to reach its full potential.

The lesson here is that managers and investors tend to like balance. They don’t like people who self-promote but don’t actually accomplish much of anything, and they don’t appreciate people who can’t self-promote regardless of what they actually do. To be successful, you have to learn to do both, as just doing the part you like and are good at won’t result in the success that should be the ultimate goal.

Product of the Week: OnLive Cloud Gaming

Product of the Week

Speaking of setting impossible goals and then accomplishing them: A little over a week ago, OnLive launched, and many, including Microsoft’s ex-head of their entertainment and hardware division, said it was impossible.

OnLive is a gaming service in the cloud, and in many ways it is very close to the vision Larry Ellison had for thin client computing, but it is actually inexpensive and works. I’ve been playing on the service — way too much, I might add — for something like 40 hours, and I’m both impressed and unfortunately hooked. Game play is good if you have a strong wired Internet connection, and the experience is better in many ways than it would be on a PC. This is because the game actually runs on OnLive’s hardware and not your own, so you don’t have to deal with compatibility or performance issues (other than networking).

OnLive MicroConsole TV Adaptor and Controller

The OnLive MicroConsole TV Adaptor and Controller
(click image to enlarge)

Right now, you run the service in your browser with a plug-in, and they will have a client device out (that would work like a game console) for under $100 (possibly free) shortly. You are basically watching a high-definition stream of the game you are playing, which also gives you the unique option of being able to watch other people play from their point of view, and that’s a great way to learn game strategy or get a sense of games you might consider buying.

Like streaming movies, you don’t actually get to own a physical disk, but you can play the game on any machine that has a fast enough Internet connection, and you always start from where you left off, much like it would be if each of these machines were your own. The graphics aren’t as good as they might be if you had a top-end game machine, but they are more than adequate, and you don’t have to fork over thousands for that top-end game machine.

This could be the beginning of truly appliance-like computing. It will likely take a decade for all of the potential for this to be realized and all of the performance bottlenecks (like WiFi and 5G) to be addressed, but it represents the best shot at a truly different PC experience, even more so than the iPad, from we have yet seen.

Because a lot of folks said this was impossible, because it actually is a great deal of fun , and because this could eventually drive the appliance PC experience we’ve all mostly wanted, OnLive is my product of the week.


Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

1 Comment

  • Apple certainly can do no wrong. Microsoft on the other hand cannot do right. Even though Windows 7 is a big success. The media writers cater only to Apple in celebrating what Apple does and not what Microsoft does. Obama is just a snake oil salesman and the American voters believed him when he promised to fix government. I AM not sure anyone can fix what ails government.

    Steve Balmer comes over like a lead balloon to me. He seems too brash and Steve Jobs is a much better salesmen. Until Microsoft finds themselves a Steve Jobs like salesmen the media will continue to ignore Microsoft.

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