If investors didn't like Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) search partnership with Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO), they like Steve Ballmer even less. Roughly 40% of more than 3,000 readers polled by The Wall Street Journal grade Ballmer's performance as CEO "D" or "F."

Easy, people.

Ballmer has issues, sure. He's been dismissive of the iPhone. He's laughed at Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Chrome OS. He's watched as Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN), IBM (NASDAQ:IBM), and others float past Microsoft in developing and deploying cloud-computing technology. He just presided over what may be the worst quarter in Microsoft's history. Oh, and did I mention that his team is virtually ignoring threats to Windows Mobile and pursuing an ill-conceived retail strategy? Yeah, that, too.

Haters, I give you schadenfreude. You too, Palm (NASDAQ:PALM) and Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM). You'll have months to populate your app stores before Microsoft's Pink smartphone arrives -- if it arrives at all.

So there are good reasons to doubt Ballmer's judgment. But we could say the same thing about most CEOs at one time or another. Few are as passionate about the companies they run as Ballmer is about Microsoft. Call him Mr. Softy's chief executive and cheerleader.

Ballmer has also seen his share of successes. Bill Gates may have been the one to sound the alarm about Netscape in the '90s browser wars, but Ballmer, as Gates' deputy, helped to marshal the forces that created Internet Explorer and subsequently choppped Netscape down. You want to bet Ballmer isn't sharpening a hatchet with Google's name on it? Sure he is; a big, bright Azure blade that stings as it Bings. And Ballmer's undoubtedly aiming for a kill.

I'm betting on Google, but I'm not about to underestimate Ballmer. He's a smart, ruthless competitor who has a record for winning over the very long term. Count him out at your own risk, investors.

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