I ran into Ballmer last night

This happened at the San Jose jet center. He was flying in, I was flying out. Our entourages tried to keep us apart but it couldn’t be helped. There’s only one hallway and we both had to go through it. Katie told me I should hold off and let him go through and then we could go through afterward. My feeling was like, Why should I wait for him? We got here first. Katie said that no, actually, we didn’t get here first, they did. Well, too bad, I said, and we started down, and of course about halfway down the hallway our group smashes into their group and the flacks start pushing and shoving and it’s almost getting ugly but then Ballmer barks out in that big shouty voice of his, “Hey Steve! Have you heard about Windows 7? The thing is literally leaping off the shelves! We’ve already sold twice as many units as any OS in a comparable time frame! It’s simply the best PC operating system that we or anyone else has ever built.”

I said, Hold up — did you just say it’s literally leaping off the shelves? Literally? Because that I’d like to see. Even ours can’t do that. But did you consider this — maybe Windows 7 is leaping off the shelf because it’s trying to kill itself, because it can’t deal with the shame anymore?

By this point we’re practically right up against each other and he’s really looking like he wants to pop me. Literally. I go, Anyway, if you’re focusing on us, you’re focusing on the wrong opponent. We’re no threat to you guys. He goes, “No shit, Sherlock. No threat at all! Not when 96 out of 100 people worldwide choose Windows.”

I said, No, the real threat to you guys is Chrome. He burst out laughing. “Chrome? Chrome? Are you fucking kidding me? Chrome is a joke!” His flacks all burst out laughing and trading high fives and saying, “Right on!” which is an expression that I didn’t think people used anymore, but there it was.

I said, See, we’re not a threat, because we’re a high-end system and we’re locked to our own hardware, and we’re very happy making shitloads of money on our tiny little market share. We have no interest in doing what you do. But Chrome? Ah, see, now there’s the thing. They want to do exactly what you do. Except they’re going to give their stuff away free. If I’m a little PC maker trying to eke out some profit on a cheapo netbook, that’s going to sound pretty good to me.

Ballmer goes, “Chrome is only free if your time is worth nothing.” I’m like, Really? Because you think working with Chrome is going to be really time-consuming and filled with hassles — more so than, um, working with you guys? Because from what I hear the PC makers are not at all happy with you guys. Not. At. All. From what we can see they’re begging for an alternative. And now Google is going to give them one. It’ll start on netbooks, but it’ll creep up over time. It’s like Dylan said, Admit that the waters around you have grown, and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone — and you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.

He goes, “We’re giving PC makers a premium product, and they’re willing to pay for that.” I said, Well, at the very least they’re going to use Chrome to beat you up on price, don’t you think? He says, “We can absorb that.”

We stopped then. I looked into his eyes and read his thoughts and something huge occurred to me. See, all along I’d been assuming that Ballmer realized how fucked he is but was just spinning and blustering because, well, that’s what you do when you’re a CEO and you’re fucked. But when I read his mind I realized: He’s not spinning.

I said, You really believe this, don’t you. He said, “Of course I do. Because it’s true. Maybe we won’t take much share from Google in search. But on the desktop? The desktop is ours. Nothing will ever displace us. We own the desktop, and we will always own the desktop.”

I said, so how are things going with Windows Mobile? He said, “We’re doing great with Windows Mobile. We’re kicking ass. We’re the most popular mobile platform in the world. We’re running on more handsets than any other software platform.”

I said, Jeez, cause I just heard about some story where they said you’ve lost half your market share in like three months. Ballmer is like, “No, we lost a third of our share, and it was since 2008, and it wasn’t my fault, it was your fault, for introducing iPhone.”

I was like, Oh, well, yeah. Sorry about that. And your market share is — what? About 8 percent. And it used to be 25 percent a few years ago? He says, “Yeah but the market is growing, so the share figures don’t really matter. I mean if you want to play the market share game you can make it look however you want. It’s all just numbers. It has nothing to do with reality. Because the reality is, we’re totally winning in this space.”

And what about Android? I said.

“We don’t see it,” he says. “We just don’t. I mean I know it’s getting a lot of buzz, but in competitive situations, we’re just not running into it. Not at all.”

I said, Because, again, we’re not really competing with you here. We’re locked onto our own hardware. But they’re going right up against you. They’re going to the same handset makers and offering them a free alternative to what you’re selling.

But then his Windows Mobile phone rang and he was like, “Hold on, I gotta take this,” so he hit a button and put the big ugly brick up against his head and he was like, “Hello? Hello?” He pulled it away from his face and put it away, trying to be all cool about it.

I said, Is it frozen? He goes, “No, it’s not frozen.” But I could tell from the way he said it that it was. Then he said something about being late for a meeting, and took off.

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