Steve Ballmer's Mixed Legacy at Microsoft

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Steve Ballmer was employee number thirty at Microsoft (MSFT) , hired as the company's first business manager who would later become CEO for more than a decade. This week he also gave up his seat on Microsoft's board of directors, fully embracing his roll as full-time owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers among other roles.

His legacy at Microsoft will be debated for decades to come and his business decisions will be studied by future generations of business students.

Ballmer was the ultimate Microsoft pitchman, known for his outrageous statements and salesmanship. For instance, a very young Ballmer doing his best Crazy Eddie impersonation, as he tried to sell an early version of Windows:

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He will also be remembered for what happened at the company during his reign as CEO, both the good and bad. On the plus side, there there was the introduction of Xbox, as it took on Sony's (SNE) successful PlayStation brand, Nintendo (NTDOY) 64 and others.

Software (which includes operating systems), where Microsoft generates the majority of its revenue, has been a mixed bag. Ballmer's Microsoft has done its best to squeeze everything it could out of its legacy titles like Windows and Office. Windows 7 deserves singling out too. It was Microsoft's finest 21st century operating system, simply because it worked. The company is still having a hard time getting users to upgrade to Windows 8, and perhaps the company will have better luck with Windows 9.

Ballmer created Microsoft's successful Enterprise Unit including Windows Server, SQL Server, Exchange and more recently Microsoft's cloud offerings, and was way ahead of its time creating an operating system for mobile devices - from early SPOT smartwatches to tablet devices to PocketPC smartphones.

Some of these corporate successes can also be counted as failures and all can be attributed to Ballmer's leadership. For instance, Window CE was years ahead of the competition combining the best of Palm, BlackBerry (BBRY)  and cell phones of that era. Although somewhat large and bulky by today's standards these early smartphones were useful devices.

But, Microsoft blew it. Those devices, along with many of the company's other projects at the time, were ignored by a management team focused on its primary business - Windows and Office.

In the case of Windows Phones, few Microsoft executives were able to see smartphones for what they would soon become, with Apple (AAPL) ultimately leading the revolution when it announced the first iPhone in 2007. Years later, Microsoft's initial response was a short-lived mistake called Kin. Manufactured by Sharp and marketed by Verizon Wireless (VZ) , both partners are still trying to forget Microsoft's $1 billion flop.

Microsoft's answer to Apple's iPod was also laughable, the short-lived Microsoft Zune. Other memorable mistakes include Windows Vista, Windows 8 and Windows RT. 

Ballmer's time will best be remembered for not being able to predict the future of computing. The company underestimated big trends, including smartphones and tablets, and underestimating the competition - Apple and especially the rapid rise of Google (GOOG) . 

Satya Nadella has his work cut out for him. He's announced a big round of layoffs as his first step to take Microsoft in a new direction. Steve Ballmer may best be remembered for leaving the board to give the new CEO a clean slate to lead Microsoft into the future.

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-- Written by Gary Krakow in New York.

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Gary Krakow is TheStreet's Senior Technology Correspondent.

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