Microsoft (MSFT) needs to be a company of “multiple muscles,” says Steve Ballmer, the company’s unusually calm CEO. In a genial interview with the Wall Street Journal‘s Walt Mossberg Wednesday morning, Ballmer presented a picture of a plodding, predictable, unexciting company. He couldn’t quite say when Microsoft will make some progress against Google (GOOG) in its weak share in Internet search. He couldn’t say why exactly the new Vista operating system was overly complex when it was released. He didn’t particularly enlighten the audience on just why Microsoft is paying $6 billion to buy online ad agency aQuantive (AQNT). By the way, Ballmer won’t mention Google’s name, referring to it merely as “the market leader;” He is willing say the word Yahoo (YHOO), but Mossberg didn’t ask him if Microsoft would like to buy Yahoo.
Microsoft has 78,000 employees today, and Ballmer acknowledged that getting things to happen outside of the “central planning committee” is a major challenge. Listen carefully, and Microsoft has become a company of excuses. If Zune isn’t so hot right now, Ballmer implies, it’s just a beginning. As for why it’s brown: “It’s the color that all the dirt bike riders really want.” (Read Brent Schlender’s biting critique of Zune, along with Apple’s (AAPL) Apple TV, here.)
As for those multiple muscles, Ballmer points out that just as Microsoft added selling to big businesses to its original business of selling sofware only to computer makers, today it’s trying hard to add two new business models: consumer electronics and advertising. “We’re going to keep coming and coming and coming and coming, just as we did in the enterprise, and just as did in phase one,”he said.
Trying, trying, trying. You almost feel sorry for Microsoft.