The software chief exec discusses the government’s role in growing the IT industry, the Quebec dispute over Windows and the patent lawsuit with Toronto-based i4i
Steve Ballmer was focused on Windows 7, Windows Server RS and Exchange 2010 when he came to Toronto on Wednesday, but following his keynote speech he gathered with a small group of national media to discuss other issues, including a few that pertain specifically to Canada.
Users want to bring a lot more consumer technology into the enterprise. If you’re a CIO, how do you give them more autonomy while still being able to manage and secure your IT properly?
We do have increasing capabilities to let people manage PCs in a different way, whether you let consumers have a part of the manchine they control and part of the machine that IT controls. Certainly that’s a target for Windows, what we’re doing with Systems Center and so on.
People say, “Oh, you should just use virtualization and just have two machines on one.” No. Too much cacophony associated with that. I mean, that actually causes user complexity in a way that is really not desirable. But our management tools have moved in that direction and will continue to.
What should Canada be learning about growing the technology ecosystem from what other countries are doing?
I think government has the most important role for government to play in any country, including here in Canada, to make sure the science and technology and engineering and math programs and investments in small kids, up until university, are in healthy shape. That’s by far No. 1 on the list. If that’s in good shape, you’re going to get kids who choose careers, start businesses, do all the kind of things you would hope they would do.
No. 2, government itself needs to be a willing participant and user of new technologies. Government should not be the most backward user – governments are going to be 25 to 30 per cent of the customer base basically for any country, give or take – so if government is a laggard in technologies, that is not helpful for the local companies, because 25 per cent of what they might have sold just disappears.
The third is to have an environment which, even if it’s not explicitly encouraging, is not unfriendly to startups, to new businesses, to R&D investment. There are ways to be unfriendly in that and there are ways to be neutral or at least not unfriendly. I was in the state of North Dakota yesterday. Turns out there’s local taxes in states, just as there probably are in provinces. And they’re having a debate: apparently you get taxed not on how successful you but how physically large you are in a state, and we’re one of the largest employers in North Dakota. We built a new building and all of a sudden our taxes have tripled. Is that really what government wants to communicate: “Invest and we tax you more?” Succeed and we tax you more I kind of understand, but I think it’s important to think what you want to do as a regime. I’m not saying there’s a formula, but don’t dis-incent.
The Quebec government has just bought a huge amount of Microsoft licences and now it’s being sued by a local company that makes open source software. How do you respond to that?
Well, our people told me that there’s a dialogue. Our job is to make the best products we can, and with our partners to proceed through appropriate tenders, but government ultimately does need to decide what it wants to use and if it wants to use our stuff that’s great. If it wants to use something else, that’s what happens. We went through this in Hungary – the Hungary schools tendered to get PCs that had Windows on. We weren’t even participants in the tender, but there were some open source companies that were upset about it and I said, “You can’t be upset with us, we provide PC manufacturers with Windows, and they put Windows on the bids.” Ultimately the Hungarian schools ended up using PCs with Windows because that’s what made the most sense. But it became semi-famous because I got an egg thrown at me at the university in Budapest by a guy who was upset about the procurement. It’s on YouTube, so a number of people saw it. As I said, our job is to make the good products. Let government go through the process. I hope and expect that that’s what’s happening in Quebec and that the Quebec government can get the best stuff for them. And I hope it’s our stuff, because apparently, this election went our way.
Microsoft is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with Toronto-based i4i over the use of certain technologies in Office. How do you feel Microsoft has handled that situation?
I think we’ve handled the situation well. We didn’t initiate the situation. We have two valid disputes: one, is it an invalid patent and No. 2, did we infringe it? They’re valid disputes and they’re playing out the way they’re supposed to through the legal system. We didn’t initiate the dispute, i4i did. That’s they’re prerogative. We don’t begrudge them that, we just don’t agree with it.
Do you miss Bill Gates?
Do I miss him as a friend? No, because we still see each other. As a colleague? Sure. He comes in the office every once in a while, but it’s not the same.
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