In many ways, Monday will be like any other day at the Redmond, Wash., headquarters of the world’s largest software maker. Microsoft workers will still come to work to tackle the same array of technological and business challenges facing the company.
For the first time in the company’s 33-year history, however, one of those employees won’t be William Henry Gates III — better known as Bill — at the company he founded after dropping out of Harvard. Gates’ last day as a full-time employee is Friday.
By design, the change won’t be an abrupt one, with Gates having given up many of his roles and responsibilities at Microsoft in recent years. He hasn’t been CEO since 2000, for instance.
In fact, even after Monday, he’ll remain a part-time employee of the company and its chairman. Those who follow the company also believe he’ll remain a key adviser to CEO Steve Ballmer and Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie.
Still, the man who helped put Windows into millions of computers — and computers on millions of desktops — will be more of a full-time philanthropist after Friday, devoting his time to running the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and finding ways to funnel his vast personal wealth — and that of fellow billionaire Warren Buffett — toward many of the world’s most vexing health and education problems.
For better or worse, the tech industry will be without one of its most enigmatic, important and polarizing figures after the transition, said Mary Jo Foley, the author of the recently released book Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era.
“One thing you have to give Bill Gates — whether you like him or not, [or] think he was a monopolist or not — is that he did make good on his promise of putting a PC on every desktop,” Foley told the E-Commerce Times. “That was his stated goal for the company, and he really did go a long way toward realizing that and toward popularizing the PC. Without Gates focusing on making a high-volume, low-cost operating system, that probably wouldn’t have happened as quickly as it did.”
Legacy, Part 1
Microsoft’s role in the technology revolution is difficult to dispute, but how Gates will be remembered is less certain. For one thing, he was the leader of the company not only during its rise to the top, but also when it began to run into bumps in the road and took a reputation — fair or not — for crushing competitors and not paying attention to its corporate image.
“Windows 95 was likely the high point of the company — with respect to image — and the firm has fallen a long way since then,” Enderle Group Principal Analyst Rob Enderle told the E-Commerce Times.
Still, others had a role in making Microsoft everyone’s favorite whipping boy. “I don’t see Gates’ legacy tarnished as much as Microsoft itself has been. Gates’ legacy of building the strongest technology company largely remains intact, while others will likely be remembered for critically damaging that leadership,” he added.
“If you look at the history of the last 25 to 30 years, Microsoft certainly has to rate as one of the most influential companies not only in our industry, but in the whole world economic picture,” said Richard Rabins, the CEO of Alpha Software, a maker of database developer tools that often competes head-to-head with the software giant. “Bill Gates is not necessarily a man people love, but he deserves a huge amount of respect. He and his original band of guys did have a profound effect on the world. They did sell a huge amount of software. I’m not necessarily a Microsoft lover, but I recognize they’ve been a beacon in this industry and were able to mainstream was what really a geeky techie field.”
While Google has been lauded for its ability to attract top employees, Gates helped create a similar culture in Redmond, Rabins added.
“The one thing I don’t think he gets full credit for is that internally, he was able to attract a lot of really smart people, and many of those people are still at the company. So even though he’s leaving, it’s still a company with a huge talent pool left,” he said.
Gates’ legacy may be colored by the fact that Microsoft paid scant attention to its public image for many years, branding expert Rob Frankel told the E-Commerce Times.
“Microsoft has never developed or articulated any brand message, so the public has been left [on] its own to create Microsoft’s image for them. And they’ve suffered as a result,” he said. Still, the company’s public image is a stark contrast to other tech companies, such as Apple and Google. “You have to look at the ‘business reality’ of the situation: Shrewd tactics are what got Microsoft its success, and that success is global and huge. How can you tell people sitting on a billion-dollar empire that branding affects them?”
Big Shoes to Fill
The question of how Microsoft changes in the post-Gates era is almost as hotly debated as Gates’ personal legacy.
“For a long time, you had this perfect partnership where Gates worried about the technology and Ballmer worried about the sales,” Foley said. “The question is, who is the new champion of that technology story? It may be that Ozzie just hasn’t wanted to step on any toes when Gates was still around, but we’ll know in six months or a year if Ozzie is going to step up and become that person. If he doesn’t, somebody else needs to.”
Enderle agreed, saying that the real question may be whether Ozzie can lead the way Gates did.
“Technically, Gates and Ozzie are very close, with Ozzie both more current and likely a bit more capable. However, Gates’ strength is his ability to drive the company, and no one — including Ozzie — has yet showcased this personal strength,” he commented. “Gates was the alpha dog at Microsoft while Ozzie is one of a number of leaders, suggesting there may never be an Ozzie Microsoft. Microsoft needs that strong central leadership to keep the divisions all performing well, and the lack of that leadership has caused several divisions to significantly underperform expectations.”
Microsoft isn’t exactly limping, Alpha Software’s Rabins pointed out. In fact, despite the recent Yahoo debacle and the surge of rivals such as Google and Apple, Gates leaves behind a strong company.
“The power they have is because they’re big,” he said. “They don’t have to be first at everything. It’s like a diesel [car]. They don’t accelerate as fast as other cars, but once they get on the highway, they’re hard to stop.”
Office 2007, he noted, is still selling well and boosting the company’s bottom line, despite a new breed of spreadsheet and productivity alternatives from the likes of Google, IBM and open source vendors. “If there were going to be a huge impact, we’d already see it in those sales numbers,” he added.
Legacy, Part II
Gates’ final legacy perhaps has yet to be written, and some of his observers believe he has chance to change the world even more now that he’s left the tech industry.
“I think he’s going to end up having two legacies,” said Foley. “The tech legacy and the foundation legacy — if the foundation ends up helping to cure AIDS or malaria, he’ll be remembered far more for that than for inventing Windows.”
Still, Gates is heading into uncharted territory, an area where he is a relative novice, noted Enderle.
“Bill is a systems and technology guy, but the problems he is taking on are social by nature, and success would seem to be predicated on a skill set that Bill has yet to demonstrate,” he said. “His success may actually be predicated on his ability to select someone else to lead and playing more of a support role, something often incredibly difficult for a leader to do.”
The fact that Gates isn’t a natural philanthropist may be a benefit, Sandy French, a professor of business rhetoric and communication at Radford University who has studied Gates’ speaking and motivation styles, told the E-Commerce Times.
“The fact that Gates doesn’t get it is most definitely a plus,” she said, adding that he’s already partnered with far more charismatic types such as U2’s Bono in his efforts. “He’s his own man, crafting creative solutions to the world’s ills in his own ways. To repeat a phrase made famous at Microsoft, Gates is ‘hard-core’ for helping the world’s poor, and I doubt he’ll stop until he is satisfied.”