Ballmermania comes to Toronto

In the realm of excitement, watching most CEOs speak publicly is a bit like watching corn grow. But not so with Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft. Here the analogy is more akin to watching a demolition derby: fast-paced, passionate and seemingly a few seconds shy of blowing a gasket.

In July, Ballmer opened Comdex Canada 2000 in Toronto with an entertaining keynote address that touched on Microsoft’s vision of the future and further explained the company’s dream of the dot-Net world. But Ballmer was quick to explain that the development of the Internet, from what it is today to its next generation, will progress slowly at first.

“It will happen slowly for the next several years, slow change, slow change, slow change and then there will be kind of almost a hockey stick of accelerating change in the Internet,” he said, quick to shoot in a very Canadian analogy.

“Why do I say that? We’re just to the point now where businesses and Web site producers are starting to see real value and starting to really get some traction with the first generation Web sites that they’ve built. We’re starting to get to the point where users are familiar with what’s going on in the Internet. I don’t think we’ll expect to see a change that happens instantaneously, but sometime over the course of the next three, four, five, six years I think we’re going to see an incredible change come about in the Internet,” he further explained.

Ballmer, like most good speakers, knows how to personalize a talk. Canadians often get the sense that American bigwigs see Canada as a 51st state. Ballmer made it clear he knew the specifics of the Canadian market and also made reference to Canada being among the most sophisticated in the world.

“Depending on exactly how you count, I think we can fairly say that…a higher percentage of Canadian households have PCs than U.S. households,” he said.

Furthermore, he joked about recent rumours of Microsoft heading north and made it clear, if they did move to Canada, it wouldn’t be British Columbia or Alberta as had been reported but rather Ballmer Town, Ont.

how software must change

Ballmer then got down to the nuts and bolts of the future, one in which Microsoft plays an integral part. He pointed to software as being not only the glue that holds most technology together but a deficit area of today’s Internet.

“The software business…has been primarily a business where you build the piece of software and you deploy it, and then you leave it alone and then you deploy it again…it’s a very static activity,” he explained. Ballmer sees those days as being numbered, with software moving from being a product to being a service.

“Every software vendor will transform its products into a set of services, which are constantly updating themselves, monitoring your system, delivering you new functionality, storing information on your behalf, watching other things on the Internet on your behalf,” he explained.

For all of this to occur Ballmer said XML will have to become the de-facto protocol of the Internet because of its ability to more thoroughly describe the content, data and semantics of a page. But just using XML will not be enough. Today’s Web sites are more of less producer-driven, he said.

“Somebody builds a site and you look at the Web site. We don’t live in a world today where you can create your own Web page or Web site out of information that comes from multiple sites; there’s no easy way to go collect that information and have it integrated,” he said. “You have to go visit each one of those sites and look at the information and copy it down.”

Ballmer and his buddies at Microsoft also envision a world where Web sites don’t crash as often as they do today.

“In the new world of Internet operations what you’ll have is farms of servers, and if one of them goes down you’re OK because…other machines pick up the load,” he explained.