Ballmer in Boston: Microsoft CEO on New England Startups, Competing with Apple, and the “New Normal” of IT

10/16/09Follow @wroush

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startups.” He added that his meeting with MassTLC focused on “what’s driving innovation and productivity that can make a difference not only in all of our businesses but also, I’m hoping, be a major propellant of the world’s economy.”

One questioner asked Ballmer why, in his opinion, the center of gravity in the information technology industry had moved away from Route 128, and whether he sees any signs that it might move back. “I think there’s a bit of chance and good fortune in a lot of this,” he answered. “There is still a lot of talent here, and a load of people graduating every year. The startup culture is more alive on the West Coast than in the East, and [so is] the infrastructure for entrepreneurs—or if that is not the case today, it probably was at some point.” Ballmer also pointed to a difference in the concentration of large technology firms that “prime the pump” in Silicon Valley.”HP, Intel, Oracle are there—these are big companies whose people might leave and do startups,” he said. The only equivalent company in the Boston area, he said, is EMC.

Ballmer was also asked whether it makes Microsoft stronger to have Apple as a competitor. “Yeah, we love having Apple as a competitor,” he said, not without a note of irony. “They are a competitor that we have done very well with, in some parts of what we do, and a competitor that has been real tough in others. But about 96 percent of the world’s computers are PCs, and 4 percent are Macs. Thanks to their advertising, everybody knows the difference—but I like 96 and they like 4, I guess.”

In the mobile phone world, where Microsoft is preparing to roll out Windows Mobile 7, the latest version of its smartphone operating system, Apple has “blazed a trail” with the iPhone, Ballmer acknowledged, but “we are going to give them some good competition.”

In a moment of humor, one audience member asked who Ballmer would pick to personify Apple, if he were directing his own Apple vs. PC commercials. “There’s no percentage in my answering that,” he said, but continued, “Statistically, 96 percent of the people you are talking to do own a PC. Do you really want to make those people feel bad because they chose a PC? They are not wrong, they are right. I would probably communicate that.”

Asked whether Microsoft has plans to hire more workers in New England, Ballmer said “in the new normal, the level of expense increase that we go through at Microsoft will be somewhat reduced…Certainly this is one of the places we will grow. We are looking at some companies here, and both by internal growth and acquisition you will see … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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