Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's tenure had some high points and some low points. As the software giant seeks to name a new CEO within 12 months, one thing is absolutely clear in the IT channel: Microsoft's (MSFT) next CEO -- Ballmer's successor -- must apologize to partners for numerous channel, mobile and cloud missteps in recent years. Here's why. 

During the 1990s, Microsoft was a channel-first company on all new product launches. When Windows 95 arrived, there was a strong partner program in place for ISVs, OEMs and channel resellers. When Windows NT Server 4.0 and BackOffice arrived, it was clear Microsoft was working hard to train partners that could potentially disrupt rivals like Novell NetWare, IBM OS/2 Warp Server, Oracle, Sybase and others. 

Microsoft didn't always succeed. But the company always -- um, absolutely always -- sold through partners first.

The Wheels Come Off

By around 2007, Microsoft's actions showed that the company lost its way. The evidence:

  • Windows Vista: This debacle involved an operating system upgrade that had poor support for legacy hardware and software. Did Microsoft bother to fully test the operating system with partners prior to launch? If so, why the horrid legacy support?
  • Windows 7: Definitely an improvement, but Microsoft was so busy developing this major fix to Windows Vista that the company missed out on the first smartphone and tablet waves.
  • Office 365: The cloud suite's initial launch in 2011 had a lame partner program. VARs and MSPs could not control end-customer billing or pricing. Heck, even the Google Apps Reseller Program had solved that challenge years before. We're two years into Office 365 and Microsoft is finally showing some real progress on Office 365's partner program components. Still, there are too many SKUs and partners should have been Microsoft's top priority during the intial 2011 launch...
  • Microsoft Surface: It took Microsoft nearly a year to launch a very limited Surface partner program. Once again, partners -- resellers and VARs -- felt like they were an after-thought. Even with partner support, Surface might have tanked. But at least partners wouldn't have felt left out of the conversation.

Oh, and one more thing. Before apologizing to partners, Microsoft's next CEO should apologize to Channel Chief Jon Roskill. The VAR Guy senses that Roskill has tried ever strategy possible to make Microsoft more channel friendly. But our resident blogger also believes that Ballmer was obsessed with competing vs. Apple in the consumer market and cloud services providers in the business market.

In both cases, it looks like Ballmer wanted to take more business direct. And in both cases, Microsoft has stumbled badly. 

Hopefully, Microsoft can regain its balance -- and partner credibility -- under a new CEO. And that CEO must open his or her arms to partners.