Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer speaks at a Microsoft event in San Francisco, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
SAN FRANCISCO (USA TODAY) - Steve Ballmer was tech's happy warrior, a bulldog of a CEO who enjoyed throwing elbows in pickup basketball games.
It was that trait that made him such a powerful force behind Microsoft's marketing strategy and the perfect No. 2 man to visionary Bill Gates. The voluble Ballmer, who loved to slap backs and kick tails, was the perfect enforcer.
BALLMER: Microsoft chief to retire
Their teamwork led to spectacular results - vaulting Microsoft, at one point, to the most valued tech company and setting a lofty benchmark for Google, Apple and others to follow.
But with Ballmer's announcement today that he is retiring within 12 months, one thing is now clear: Without Gates, who drifted into philanthropy several years ago, Ballmer - and Microsoft - were never the same.
While its licensing business is the envy of the industry, the software giant has slipped behind a pack of rivals - Google, Apple, Amazon.com, Facebook - both in terms of risk taking and innovation. Microsofties cringed whenever a reporter uttered that, but the company's latest stabs in mobile and other fledgling areas left consumers cold.
Speculation over Ballmer's future with Microsoft has circulated for years, leading to a not-so-subtle parlor game among valley insiders on when he would step aside, and who will replace him.
Analyst Jonathan Yarmis believes the timing is good for Microsoft to bring in a fresh face - acquire Box and its dynamic young CEO, Aaron Levie, perhaps? - to stir things up.
The gregarious Ballmer has always loved Microsoft, and served as the ultimate battering ram for Gates & Co. Now that he's stepped aside, Ballmer has once again proved to be a consummate team player.