Text size

The news conference that opened the visit to Israel of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was held in a Tel Aviv hotel overlooking the sea. A few minutes before his arrival, the blinds on the windows were drawn tightly closed. Ballmer's bodyguards explained to those present that this was a security precaution: apparently they feared that the richest Jew in the world might be a target from a yacht or a helicopter that would come via the sea.

A senior Microsoft Israel official explained that Ballmer had landed at 2 A.M. The official had tried to doze a little before the boss arrived, but there was too much noise from the neighboring room. He begged and pleaded, but the noise did not stop. Only later did he learn that the ballyhoo had come from a special alarm installed on Ballmer's door. "Isn't it easier to put a guard there?" he asked. "There was a guard too," came the answer.

At the news conference, Ballmer was asked how he felt when he heard that Google was launching its new Gmail service. Ballmer smiled, rubbed his hands, and said: "This was my reaction. Go ahead, let's see what you've got!" It was a good act, but it was unlikely to have been his first reaction. Ballmer said that Google's move did not take him by surprise; but it appears that Microsoft was indeed taken aback, since more than a month has already gone by, and the firm has not reacted. What is it waiting for?

The effect of the shock can be seen from the change in Microsoft's strategy. While numerous firms, especially Oracle, take every possible chance to attack Microsoft, the firm has refused to speak about its competitors, prefering to concentrate on promoting its own activities. Nevertheless, during the visit, Ballmer mentioned Google in almost every possible forum, and announced that, within a few months, Microsoft would have a winning solution.

Ballmer reiterated that Microsoft's main goal was to help customers. How? By combining applications with new features in its operating system. But this was the very reason that the firm had run into difficulties with the law in the United States and now also in Europe. Ballmer, a tough businessman, put on his sweetest face, and said that there is no law that prevents the firm from introducing new applications in its operating system. That is merely an interpretation of the laws of competition, he explained, and Microsoft did not feel it had contravened the law, since there was no such law.

Ballmer's response was so amusing that it can only be compared to another amusing answer. In episode 29 of the TV series "Seinfeld," George is called in by his boss, who asks him if he had sex with the cleaning woman on his desk. "Wasn't that okay? Is it possible that I should not have done that?" George asks. He goes on to say that he he was not aware of this, since no one told him that when he started to work there, and it is done at lots of offices.

Ballmer is many things, but he is not George. Microsoft's fake ingenuousness whenever it is caught contravening the law has already played itself out.

After the news conference was over, there was a mini-conference for the electronic media. The Channel 2 reporter asked Ballmer how the technological world would look in another decade. Ballmer became touchingly enthusiastic, and described how, when he sees a good hit in a golf match and shouts out, "Bill, did you see that?," the set will connect him with his friend Bill Gates. This captivating description was broadcast on the evening news.

During the news broadcast, Ballmer was talking before 2,100 high-tech experts who were attending Microsoft's annual conference in Eilat. He told them about the question he had been asked in the morning. Sometimes I'm asked what will be in another 10 years, he said, and I usually make up some exciting story on the spot. That is what the media like, he added, but it is reasonable to assume that the details I give are incorrect. He explained that it was extremely difficult to know what would happen in another decade, just as 20 years ago no one could predict what had happened 10 years ago. That is the nonchalant way in which the CEO of Microsoft treats the media.