David Heinemeier Hansson

March 5, 2024

Apple is in its Ballmer era

During Ballmer's reign as CEO of Microsoft, the company always made plenty of money. While the stock traded sideways, Ballmer made sure it was still raining dividends. Yet, today, that era of Microsoft is not looked upon too fondly. It's seen as being anchored in the company's historic paranoia, Windows-centric world view, and as missing the boat on mobile.
Then along came Satya Nadella.

Now, it's tempting to write a hagiography of whoever is CEO when a company is flying high, and Microsoft has soared in recent years. It's currently the most valuable company in the world. The only one with an over three trillion dollar market capitalization. But we don't need to be blinded by the halo effect to realize that Microsoft under Nadella is a fundamentally different company to the one it was under Ballmer. A better company making better products.

I've only been running Windows for a few weeks now, but the proof is in the pudding. Windows is increasingly attractive to developers like me, because Nadella not just buried Microsoft's hatchet with open source, but outright embraced it. And open source runs the world for the majority of developers working with the web.

Thus it's a strange but wonderful feeling to be running Ubuntu 22.04 under the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), and finding everything so beautifully integrated and super fast. To see VSCode as a fully open source project, thriving without the coercion of a platform mandate, and winning the hearts and minds of developers on a level playing field. And, of course, to see Microsoft with the smartest card in all of AI in their deck. Oh, and as excellent stewards of GitHub!

And then you look at Apple. Sure, they're making gobs of money these days, like Ballmer did so well during his time, but, also like Ballmer, they're anchored in an aggrieved past. One that includes a self-image of a persecuted victim in the antitrust arena, one which just can't seem to get the love and respect from builders on its platforms that it believe it rightly deserves. One that would write shit like this in an actual press release:
 A large part of [Spotify's] success is due to the App Store, along with all the tools and technology that Spotify uses to build, update, and share their app with Apple users around the world.
 We’re proud to play a key role supporting Spotify’s success — as we have for developers of all sizes, from the App Store’s earliest days.
Yes, that's literally Apple taken credit for Spotify's success in response to the EU fining them $1.8 billion for illegal practices. After all the malfeasance and self-preferencing Apple employed to help Apple Music unfairly gain ground against Spotify. It's truly an incredible document. One that I hope marks the sad high water point for Apple's hubris. One we'll point to once this cast of executives currently steering the ship finally depart their positions.

Because I've increasingly come to the conclusion that nothing will fundamentally change at Apple until they have the kind of leadership transition that unlocked so much value at Microsoft. Until they find their Nadella to replace their Ballmer, we should expect more indignant press releases, more threats, more evasion, more malicious compliance.

I've referred to this antitrust deposition of Bill Gates from 1998 before. It's an ugly video. Microsoft and Gates at their very worst. And it's incredible how similar the posture of Gates and the posture of Apple's writing in that press release on the Spotify verdict shimmers with the same light.

But look at Microsoft now. They've managed to literally get to the top of the world while also engaging with the broader development community in an incredibly productive way. Does that make Microsoft perfect? Of course it doesn't. Nor does it erase our collective memory of what it once was. But today - right here, right now - they're a model for what Apple could become.

Oh, and for all the shit Ballmer gets, and much of it is deserved, I will give him that he knew the value of DEVELOPERS, DEVELOPERS, DEVELOPERS. Maybe now that he's in his golden years, he could pass on some of that wisdom to his fellow boomer, Tim Cook. Or maybe just tell him about how good retirement actually is, and perhaps recommend a sports team that Cook could buy to pass the time.

Either way, Apple needs a cultural reboot.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.