He has never quite achieved the iconic status of his college pal and the world's wealthiest person Bill Gates, but billionaire Steve Ballmer got his share of attention on a trip to India last week.
Ballmer made the rounds, meeting India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other top officials, visiting the offices of the business daily The Economic Times, where he donned the hat of guest editor for a while, and engaging in well-publicized discussions with prominent Indian businessmen.
With the prime minister, Ballmer reportedly discussed Microsoft's strategy for India, including the company's efforts to make its Windows operating system available in new local languages. Last year, Bill Gates had said the Redmond, Washington-based firm would spend $1.7 billion over four years to expand its India operations and hire more employees.
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Ballmer even tapped into the country's two passions: cricket and Bollywood, publicly meeting with director Yash Chopra and cricketer Anil Kumble, both of whose companies use Microsoft products.
There weren't too many embarrassing questions about Microsoft's unsatisfactory growth the last few quarters. The Economic Times did dare to mention the global giant's problems with 'regulators.' To which Ballmer said: "Clearly, our competitors, most probably IBM, I'd say, have workedhard to get the government to be its ally on the regulatory front, and competitors do that. I find it unfortunate but it apparently is the way of world business."
Seems like there wasn't any specific agenda to the trip. When asked, a Microsoft spokesperson stuck to generalities. "India is important for Microsoft from both a customer and talent perspective. This trip is part of a regular itinerary for Steve to keep himself abreast of development and opportunities here."
Ballmer launched Microsoft's foray into the cellular phone industry in India during the three-day trip, which included stops in Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai.
Microsoft has agreed to provide Windows Live search and services to about 21 million mobile phone customers in India.
Ballmer said Microsoft wants to be a world leader among Internet search engines, but acknowledged there's still a long way to that goal. Google and Yahoo dominate the industry now. Still, at an event for software developers and designers in Hyderabad, Ballmer took a potshot at the competition: "People like to ask about this area--search--where we are not No 1. But it is a fact that 50% of the time people do not find what they are looking for. And we hope to change that."