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Ballmer and Gates: Let's Stay Together

We can imagine that there were days of wine and roses at past Microsoft shareholder meetings. Champagne flowed, caviar gleamed and the whole affair had the feel of a huge gala dinner. OK, so maybe things weren't that fancy...but they were surely better than they are now.

The marriage between Microsoft and its shareholders, once so vibrant, has gone a bit...stale. Hence the decidedly not-party atmosphere at this week's shareholder meetings, in which rumblings and grumblings about the company's long-stagnant stock price drowned out whatever noise popping champagne corks might have made.

There were questions, some more burning than others, about everything from Windows Phone 7 to Bill Gates's sales of Microsoft shares to fund his immense charitable foundation. When pressed about why he was selling shares for charity rather than simply taking them off of Microsoft's books, Gates gave an excellent response, as quoted in the story linked above:

"I think the thrust of the question is, 'Are the current grantees of the foundation more deserving than turning the money over to Microsoft shareholders?' I've made the decision that that wealth is going to go into the foundation rather than being the reduction in the shares of Microsoft."

Good for you, Bill. Seriously. Nobody could ever accuse Bill Gates, of all people, of not being responsible to Microsoft's shareholders, and he should be able to use his shares for whatever purpose he chooses. The fact that he's selling them to pump money into his wonderful foundation is even more laudable.

That little exchange was just a sidelight, though, in the shareholder affair. The real bomb dropped when somebody asked Steve Ballmer about possibly breaking up Microsoft. Both Ballmer and Gates spoke to the topic, offerings answers a bit short on details and pretty long on, "Uh, no." And that's OK with us. (Check out the TechFlash link earlier in this paragraph for their full answers.)

We've never been proponents of a Microsoft breakup. We at RCPU do feel as though Microsoft should focus less on the futile pursuit of consumer hegemony and more on maintaining and expanding the company's enterprise empire. That's not tantamount, though, to saying that there should be multiple Microsofts. We're more interested in a more focused, less consumer-hungry Microsoft.

What we find interesting here is simply that the "break-up" question came up. Not much about what Ballmer or Gates said was surprising, but clearly there is some frustration boiling up from within the Microsoft shareholder base. We're guessing that shareholders are a long, long way from forcing a breakup of the company and will probably never get to that point. But if key players don't like the returns they're getting, they'll continue to make their voices hears.

Maybe the days of whine and thorns, then, have replaced the days of wine and roses in Redmond. Still, while the party might not be what it once was, it goes on -- as will Microsoft, as a single, still pretty darn strong entity. For now, anyway.

Should Microsoft break up? Why or why not? Send your answer to [email protected].

Posted by Lee Pender on November 17, 2010