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Columns

Commentary: Life after Gates

Mary Jo Foley, author of the new book Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era, poses in an undated handout photo. REUTERS/Handout

(Mary Jo Foley is the author of the new book Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008). She also is the editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog (click on blogs.zdnet.com/Microsoft) and has been reporting on Microsoft since 1984, the first time she interviewed Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.)

NEW YORK (Reuters.com) - Friday will be Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates’ last day in the office -- at least his last day as a full-time Microsoft employee. (Gates will remain Microsoft Chairman and remain involved in select projects at the company.) Gates has decided it’s a good time for him to put his time, energy and money into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicated to “innovations in health and learning.”

It has been a long goodbye for Gates, not a hasty divorce. Gates & Co. have been working to make his transition to his new job as seamless as possible -- both image-wise and in terms of how the 90,000+ Microsoft employees worldwide do their jobs. Steve Ballmer took the CEO mantle from Gates back in 2000, and Ray Ozzie took on Gates’ former “Chief Software Architect” title and responsibilities in 2006. Microsoft has wanted to make sure that its customers and shareholders notice little, if any, disruption in Microsoft’s established business patterns and practices.

An orderly transition doesn’t mean that “Life After Gates” will be just like “Life With Gates,” however. Microsoft managers and developers, the company’s partners and its competitors are all likely to feel the impact, sooner or later of a Microsoft without the hard-charging, detail-obsessed Gates at the helm. Up until now, Microsoft has been Bill Gates. Just like Apple, Microsoft is a company that has been indelibly branded by the personality and quirks of its leader.

Microsoft has operated well during much of its 33-year history as a partnership between the dynamic duo: The tech-focused Gates and the sales-focused Ballmer. Now that it’s going to be Ballmer alone running the show, some of the more tech-focused Microsoft developers (known internally as “Bill’s Guys”) and products that Gates championed could end up falling by the wayside. Current Chief Software Architect Ozzie is seen by many in the industry as a tech visionary, yet Ozzie has said repeatedly that he is no Gates. And at least so far, Ozzie has shown himself to be unwilling to be the public face of Microsoft. He’s been nowhere near as high-profile as Gates and is said to favor Apple-style secrecy over public pronouncements about what’s in the technology pipeline. It’s also still-to-be-determined whether Ozzie will morph into one of “Steve’s guys” and how Ozzie and Ballmer will mesh without Gates as the middleman.

Gates has been involved in product review and strategy meetings at Microsoft right up until this week. A “Bill Gates review” typically has instilled a mix of fear and awe in employees whose projects have been subject to them. Gates has been known to dissect product presentations at an incredibly granular level and to have sent more than one team back to the drawing board.

Gates wasn’t always 100 percent on the money, in terms of his technology prognostications and bets. Some of his pet projects -- the Tablet PC, SPOT watches, speech and touch input, IPTV -- so far have failed to become the next big things. But Gates did manage to steer the Redmond ship from tiny startup to aircraft-carrier juggernaut through a mix of luck, skill and persistence.

The post-Gates Microsoft -- a k a “Microsoft 2.0” -- is facing a business (and government regulatory) climate very different from the one in which Microsoft 1.0 thrived. While some company watchers say it’s the perfect time to make way for new blood at Microsoft, I still believe a Microsoft with Gates still running the show would have a stronger chance of success in the Google/Apple-dominated services and consumer- product arenas that are emerging as new power centers in the technology world.

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