It looks more or less settled that former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will be the next owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. That's fantastic news! Here's what you need to know about LA's sweaty new sports fixture.
Steve Ballmer. Where do I know that name?
Ballmer was a big part of Microsoft for three decades, and took over as CEO in 2000, after Bill Gates stepped down. He retired earlier this year.
What's his story?
Ballmer was born in Detroit, earned a degree in applied mathematics and economics from Harvard. After school, he worked at Proctor & Gamble before going to grad school at Stanford for business. That didn't last long, since Bill Gates, whom Ballmer knew from Harvard, came calling to run the business side of Microsoft in 1980. Twenty years later, he was CEO.
OK. So why do all the tech guys make fun of him?
Well, he kind of sucked. While Microsoft remained profitable under Ballmer, these were also the years when the company got its ass handed to it by Apple, Amazon, and Google. For many more years than are reasonable for a giant and incredibly wealthy company, Microsoft couldn't get smartphones or tablets or much of anything beyond word processors and spreadsheets right.
Ballmer made some motions toward getting the company back on track—at its core, Windows 8 is a very good idea—but Microsoft's problem for years has been the inability to take very good ideas and turn them into things that people actually want. Windows Phone is four years old, and there's a good chance you've never seen one in person. Windows 8.1 continues to piss off both people who hate change and people who want change. The Surface is apparently made for the 15 people in the world who actually need it. The problem, essentially, is all the good ideas from seven, eight years ago passed Microsoft by, and now it's steady sweating out every fad until one, hopefully, sticks. But that just sort of leaves you sweaty all the time. Steve Ballmer's Microsoft is a sweat stain.
Here's Ballmer laughing off the iPhone, which by 2012 generated more revenue on its own than all of Microsoft:
In fairness, the iPhone cost $500 at the time, but not acknowledging that it wouldn't always, and staying so comically beholden to keyboards and enterprise is as good a summation as you're going to get.
Right, but that doesn't quite explain...
Oh hahahaha right. It's a lot more likely you know him as the giant, sweaty man lumbering around 0n stage, screaming "DEVELOPERS!" at some vaguely tech-centric conference, like this:
Or perhaps just, you know, screaming in general:
Or from the weirdo, drug-induced commercials he's done for Windows:
Oh god, that's delightful. Can we get him to do the in-arena LET ME HEAR IT!!! promos?
And he likes sports?
Yeah, Ballmer is a big sports fan. He managed the football team while he was at Harvard, and tried to buy the Kings (and move them to Seattle) last year.
Oh yeah! What happened with him and the Kings?
He was close! Ballmer is apparently working on his own this time, but with the Kings, he was part of an ownership group that included investor Chris Hansen. With that deal, though, Ballmer was all the way in on getting a team back in Seattle. It would have actually been fun, since fellow Microsoft alum Paul Allen owns the Sonics' natural rival, the Trail Blazers.
Eventually, though, the league was compelled to keep the Kings in Sacramento, and its owners voted to reject the bid from Ballmer's group. He didn't take it well. Here's Pro Basketball Talk.
"He's on a rampage," said one source. "He assumed he could backdoor Sacramento with a willing partner in the Maloofs, but he underestimated Sacramento and now he thinks he can twist enough arms around the league to force his way into the association."
"It was at that point that Ballmer put the league on notice," said one league source. "Knowing that he could offer virtually anything with a decision on the Kings' future all-but made, Ballmer has been dead-set on embarrassing the league by making them turn down a much higher offer."
This past weekend the Seattle-Maloof group leaked news of an increased $406 million offer for the Maloof-controlled 65 percent stake of the team. They also leaked news that the Maloof family would not sell to the Sacramento group.
Will he move the Clippers to Seattle?
It's hard to say, but it seems unlikely. Unlike the Kings, the Clippers aren't losing money, and don't have a dumpy old arena. They're in Los Angeles, for god's sake. Teams have left LA before, and it would be a bigger gain for Seattle than anything, but for now at least, Ballmer's ownership approval is reported to hinge on his promise to keep the team where it is. As we've seen with Clay Bennett, though, these things can change.
Is he going to be an embarrassment like Sterling? He's gotta be better than Sterling, right?
Broadly, yes, of course Ballmer is better than Donald Sterling on the general level of humanity. But don't forget, Microsoft has been and continues to be involved in some pretty messed up shit. Manufacturing in China is generally a human rights disaster, and while Microsoft doesn't take as much of a beating as Apple does in this regard, it's just as implicated as anyone. This passage from the New York Times is with regard to Apple in 2012, but every tech company manufacturing in China, including Microsoft, is part of a gross human rights situation:
Mr. Lai's college degree enabled him to earn a salary of around $22 a day, including overtime — more than many others. When his days ended, he would retreat to a small bedroom just big enough for a mattress, wardrobe and a desk where he obsessively played an online game called Fight the Landlord, said his girlfriend, Luo Xiaohong.
Those accommodations were better than many of the company's dorms, where 70,000 Foxconn workers lived, at times stuffed 20 people to a three-room apartment, employees said. Last year, a dispute over paychecks set off a riot in one of the dormitories, and workers started throwing bottles, trash cans and flaming paper from their windows, according to witnesses. Two hundred police officers wrestled with workers, arresting eight. Afterward, trash cans were removed, and piles of rubbish — and rodents — became a problem. Mr. Lai felt lucky to have a place of his own.
Also, while the specifics still aren't totally clear, do remember that Microsoft was one of the many tech companies cooperating with the NSA in some wide capacity.
It's unclear how much control Ballmer would have had over any of these things, but they happened on his watch. He also once threw a fucking chair at a desk.
He threw a fucking chair at a desk?
Yes! From legal documents released in 2005, about then-Microsoft employee Mark Lukovsky leaving to work for Google:
Prior to joining Google, I set up a meeting on or about November 11, 2004 with Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer to discuss my planned departure....At some point in the conversation Mr. Ballmer said: "Just tell me it's not Google." I told him it was Google.
At that point, Mr. Ballmer picked up a chair and threw it across the room hitting a table in his office. Mr. Ballmer then said: "Fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy. I'm going to fucking bury that guy, I have done it before, and I will do it again. I'm going to fucking kill Google." ....
Thereafter, Mr. Ballmer resumed trying to persuade me to stay....Among other things, Mr. Ballmer told me that "Google's not a real company. It's a house of cards."
Do you have a photoshop of Steve Ballmer as Saturn devouring his son?
Glad you asked!
Moving on... will the Clippers be an advanced metrics team now?
Doc Rivers consolidated a ton of organizational control in the chaos of the Sterling debacle, but Ballmer has been known as a very involved data guy. It's kind of a good news-bad news thing. Here's the WSJ:
Mr. Ballmer says his senior team struggled with the New Steve. Some resisted on matters large—combining engineering teams—and small, such as weekly status reports.
Qi Lu, an executive vice president, submitted a 56-page report on applications and services. Mr. Ballmer sent it back, insisting on just three pages—part of a new mandate to encourage the simplicity needed for collaboration. Mr. Lu says he retorted: "But you always want the data and detail!"
Mr. Ballmer says he started to realize he had trained managers to see the trees, not the forest, and that many weren't going to take his new mandates to heart.
What would you give for a 56-page report on just what the hell DeAndre was doing on defense that one night in February? I'd expect that Ballmer won't be quite that exacting—he seemed to have mellowed by the end at Microsoft—but when you get a new owner with a degree in applied mathematics and economics, you're probably going to bump up the operating budget for analytics.
Oh Christ. Beyond that, what kind of owner will he be? Is he smart?
It's honestly hard to say, since this seems like a self-made, retired enthusiast spending money he never dreamed he'd have on a plaything. Who knows how he'll operate it.
That said, this is as good a time as any to collect some corporate weirdo Steve Ballmer anecdotes, don't you think?
From Business Insider, on Ballmer the people person:
A former Microsoft employee we spoke with relayed an anecdote that sums up the Ballmer era:
A team at Microsoft built a software program that serves as a sort of digital notebook, allowing users to gather emails, notes and web pages in one place.
When it was time to do a product review of the program with Ballmer, he came into the meeting and said, "I haven't used it. I'm not the right user."
The people who built the product were heartbroken. They had spent all their time developing this thing for Microsoft and the CEO hadn't taken 10 minutes to test it and see what it was like.
From Vanity Fair's 2012 profile on Ballmer, and the fall of Microsoft (not online), on Ballmer the public presenter and motivator, respectively:
Rumors had swirled throughout the day that Ballmer planned to go out in a blaze of glory, offering a peek at a yet-to-be-released stunner from a company whose recent innovations had too often been lackluster or worse. Instead, what emerged was a gonzo spectacle, structured as a confab between [Ryan] Seacrest and Ballmer. Cookie Monster showed up, as did a gospel choir that belted out a bizarre song composed entirely of random tweets shot into cyberspace by who-the-hell knows.
In the early 1990s, it seemed as if every Microsoft employee's computer ran an application that left an image on their screens at all times: a cartoon depiction of a face whose expression changed depending on the direction of the company's stock price. When shares increased in value, the face smiled; when they fell, it frowned.
From Ycombinator, immediately after Ballmer announced his retirement, on Ballmer's strategies:
Let me tell you an anecdote why I think Ballmer was incompetent and largely responsible for the sorry state that Microsoft is in at the moment. Yesterday there was a long article in the Israeli newspaper Globes about the success of the Israeli adware companies. Israel has in recent years become a world leader in software that installs unwanted toolbars on your elderly dad and mom's PC and "monetizes" them until they get their son or daughter to come over and fix it.
The list of such companies includes some really big ones, like Babylon and Conduit. These companies are making their profits by degrading Windows users' experience. Not only didn't Ballmer do anything to fight them, Microsoft actually has affiliate agreements with these companies to take a slice of the profits. Screwing your own customers like that cannot end well for Microsoft.
From the Wall Street Journal, on Ballmer's musical sendoff, Pete Carroll, and the timing of this purchase:
At his final annual employee meeting this September, Mr. Ballmer gave high-fives and ran off the stage to the song: "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" from the movie "Dirty Dancing."
Last month, walking along Lake Washington, Mr. Ballmer bumped into Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who was fired from earlier jobs and now is thriving. Mr. Carroll says he told his neighbor he went through "something like this" and predicted it is "going to be great."
Mr. Ballmer says he is weighing casual offers as varied as university teaching and coaching his youngest son's high-school basketball team. He plans no big decisions for at least six months—except that he won't run another big company. He says he's open to remaining a Microsoft director.
(It's been almost exactly six months since Ballmer's announcement.)
The WSJ again, on Ballmer asking for help from Ford CEO Alan Mulally, by dumping a bag full of phones onto a table:
Mr. Ballmer brought a messenger bag, pulling out onto a table an array of phones and tablets from Microsoft and competitors. He asked Mr. Mulally how he turned around Ford. For four hours, he says, Mr. Mulally detailed how teamwork and simplifying the Ford brand helped him reposition it.
Is this going to work? Is he just going to fuck up the Clippers in different and more varied ways than Sterling?
When Ballmer left Mirosoft, its profits were three times higher than when he took over as CEO. But its stock was continually depressed, and was just 60 percent of where it started with him as CEO. It bounced seven percent the morning after he announced he was resigning. Translation: Everyone thought he was an idiot. Maybe they were right, maybe they weren't. But through that, people still like working for Microsoft, and it's generally better than an 80-year-old racist horndog slumlord.