Stepping into Bill’s boots isn’t easy for Microsoft’s Balmer

These days Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer has a lot on his mind and on his plate. As the “full time champion of innovation” Balmer has got to lead Microsoft successfully into a range of new markets, while ensuring that demand for its core products (Windows and Office) don’t flag. But the CEO isn’t balking at the prospect of stepping into Bill’s boots.

Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Steve Ballmer said Thursday that with his co-leader Bill Gates preparing to transition to a part-time role at Microsoft, he has a big job to fill to ensure the company continues to innovate and grow its revenue in new business markets.

“Bill has been the real champion of innovation, pushing us to expand into new areas,” Ballmer said, speaking at Microsoft’s annual Financial Analyst Meeting (FAM) in Redmond, Washington. “I have never had to be the primary champion of innovation in our company.”

Now, he said, he is “the full-time champion of innovation,” responsible to fill the shoes Gates is vacating to make sure Microsoft moves ahead and is successful in new product areas and markets.

Last month, Gates said he would move to a part-time role at Microsoft in 2008 so he could focus more time on philanthropy through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Microsoft’s chairman, who is on vacation in Africa, is a no-show at this years’ Microsoft FAM, for the first time.

Ballmer said Microsoft is focused on expanding its entertainment, mobile-device and online businesses to stay competitive as well as provide a return on investments. Investments have been made in these areas to develop offerings such as the Xbox 360 and Windows Live Web-based services.

Microsoft’s CEO said for the first time, he has been asked this year by financial analysts how Microsoft’s investment in these new products and markets will pay off for. “This notion that there wasn’t a big return on [our investments] — this is the first time for me that I heard those kind of questions,” Ballmer said.

In fiscal 2007, Microsoft plans to spend nearly US$3 billion to promote both core products as well as invest in new businesses. Wall Street analysts have questioned the size of the investment and are still unclear how it will bring returns to Microsoft shareholders. Ballmer said the company will shed more light on this topic during Thursday’s meeting.

Even as Microsoft expands into new markets, the company must ensure that businesses for core products such as Windows and Office continue to grow, Ballmer said.

Microsoft has two major product launches coming up later this year and in early 2007, when both Windows Vista and Office 2007 are expected to be released. Both products have been plagued by delays, and many analysts feel Vista will be delayed even further, beyond its expected January 2007 consumer release.

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