SearchTHIS: Open Letter to Steve Ballmer

In this crazy mixed up world we live in, there are few certainties. Death, taxes, and search market share battles are among them. Desktop search and other new web-based platforms are hailed as all the rage in our ready-fire-aim search culture, and top providers are going at it like Macy’s and Gimbels.

Microsoft’s chief executive recently found himself under fire for some allegedly harsh behavior. Deposition excerpts from a highly publicized Microsoft versus Google lawsuit involving a certain senior manager’s departure from the software giant to the household search name fueled the flame.

Apparently, Mr. Ballmer used colorful language and expressed a high level of spiritedness when he became aware that one of his top people was headed to Google. Personally, I think the criticism is misplaced at best and yet another diversion that might take our minds away from what’s really at stake here.

In order to achieve the greater good, I will throw myself onto the proverbial grenade to help Microsoft (and, perhaps, others) stay focused and alive.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Mr. Steve Ballmer
Chief Executive Officer
Microsoft Corporation
One Microsoft Way
Redmond, WA  98052

Dear Steve:

You rock!

Microsoft has all of the important pieces in place for a very bright outlook. Judging by recent reports, you are well on your way to ensuring the future success of the giant blue machine with policies that let the dead weight go, cultivate the spirit of growth and preserve the delicate balance of policy and action.

There are a few sand traps to avoid landing in while you drive into the search green, so if you will honor me with 60 seconds or so, I'd be happy to share my thoughts. Please do not share this information with your competitors, as it will undoubtedly provide them with an unfair advantage in the coming years.

It's not about the [expletive deleted].

Seriously, don’t let those penny ante fruit loops over there on the search side of the business toy with you. So you allegedly said [expletive deleted] and threw a chair. It’s not as though you hit anyone with it, right? Trust me, during my tenure in this business, I have seen far worse. I am sure you have as well.

At the last Yahoo! Search Brand Summit, Bob Garfield must have said [expletive deleted] at least half a dozen times. Joseph Jaffe has popped off with a few [expletive deleted] in his time, but anyone with a British-sounding accent can say anything they want and it is not only socially acceptable, but sounds intellectually stimulating. So I guess we can’t count Jaffe, but you know what I mean.

You have passion, my man, and the guts to back it up. In this emasculated society we have created for ourselves, we need more of your brand of chutzpah, not less.  Have you seen the movie, “Team America, World Police"? There are three types of people in this world and some times you have to be a [expletive deleted] to the [expletive deleted] or we are all going to end up covered in [expletive deleted].

It’s not about the talent hijacking.

Not surprisingly, the press has been quick to jump on the alleged recent “mass exodus” of talent from Microsoft. Of course, there is very little mention of the extremely capable people (some of whom I know personally) that have moved over to Microsoft in the past year or so. I hope that winds you up as much as it does me.

Try to think of it this way; your last employee departed for ten million dollars to start a research center. I’ll agree that protecting your interests is important, but ten million dollars, Steve. Now I ask you, what could make one man worth ten million dollars?

Notwithstanding that it is tremendously flattering to think someone you hired is worth it, for ten million dollars, I could find you twenty three incredibly bright people (or me and two others) that would carry the business into a triple digit lifespan in magnificent ways. And that still wouldn’t be enough to win.

It’s not about who got here first.

96 percent of all personal computers are running windows -- and thank heaven. I have seen what happens when a firm decides to abandon the Microsoft operating system; it’s not a happy sight. Furthermore, I wish the rest of the world would just start using Microsoft Outlook. It would certainly make our lives easier. 

Like you said back in March, Microsoft may not be the first at everything, but it can certainly be the best. You didn’t have the first console game system but now look at Xbox. Okay, bad example. Then again, four years without a profit is nothing in the grand scheme of all things console gaming. Xbox 360 on the other hand, if it lives up to half the hype, is going to change the world. (I have some ideas for new console gaming buzzwords if you are interested.)

The search world has grown faster than anyone could have imagined. Even the rinky-dink industry that is focused on what has been dubbed search engine marketing lacks genuine staying power. Search sites are missing the boat and they have yet to realize it. Text messaging, optimized content, toolbars, directive text ad profiling and ZIP code searching -- all desultory attempts at creating what you hold in your very hands. 

It’s not about who won the battle.

Here’s how to win the war in search. Forget about the talent scalping, techno venery and our umbrageous societal cravings. Search (or any other development for that matter) has always been about the people using it: be the one to bring them something they simply can’t do without.

The names of search providers will be long forgotten when anticipated utility finally meets practical integration. Google versus Microsoft, Yahoo! versus Hollywood; its all hogwash.

Desktop search utility defining long term market share? On what planet? Low volume keyword price gouging? Bad search engine, very bad. Aggregating multiple sourced search engine listings on one not-so effective page? What in the name of Merlin’s dentures for? Mapping the human brain? Good luck with that one. These tactics fail to answer the questions everyone is asking.

Fix the spyware problem on my machine… you had me at: “fix.” Help me find a game spoiler without having to switch sources 17 times and you’ve got a winner. Stop the endless stream of PayPal phishing emails and I’ll sign up. Help me locate Paula Abdul’s dress maker without leaving the Emmy red carpet show and I am in. Assist me in establishing a connection to a wireless convergence device that does not entail strangling retail automatons.

Help me to use things I didn't know I needed; make my life better, and I am yours. The signs are there, and Microsoft has most of the pieces in place -- all you have to do is use them.

Just one small matter to discuss

Go ahead and keep trimming the fat. Make the firm young again without losing the important aspects of bureaucratic big corporate. You keep jamming, and I’ll keep playing Xbox, searching, and sending you those anonymous error messages every time my wireless network causes an Outlook crash. If anybody gives you any [expletive deleted] about it, tell them I said to go [expletive deleted] themselves, or just give them the “Team America” speech.

That’ll be ten million dollars. Please use PayPal to transmit the funds.

Very truly yours,


Kevin M. Ryan

P.S. Where do those Outlook error messages really go? I have always wondered about them.

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Kevin Ryan is chief strategy officer at
Zunch Communications.