Foley on Microsoft

Bill Gates Is Gone, and He's Not Coming Back

For the past couple of months, there's been a spate of blog posts and articles calling for Bill Gates to reassume his daily duties at Microsoft and replace CEO Steve Ballmer as the head of the company.

Folks, it's time to give up the Gatesian ghost. Gates did an amazing job building the 90,000-employee Microsoft empire. But now, Microsoft is a different company competing against a different cast of characters. Gates really has moved on and is far more focused on eliminating malaria-carrying mosquitoes than on swatting Redmond's rivals.

Much of the Gates nostalgia is simply a front for Ballmer bashing. I think that it's fair to ask whether Ballmer is more of an asset or a liability to the company of which he's been part for the last 30 years. Sure, Ballmer has had his share of faux pas and has backed some lame ideas and executives over the years. Since he's taken the CEO reins, the Microsoft stock price has been stagnant. He's still beholden to the company's Windows and Office legacies.

But the reality is that Ballmer probably won't go anywhere for at least eight more years, if you take the man at his word. Two years ago, he said he planned to stay at Microsoft until his youngest son was off to college. That would keep Ballmer in Redmond until around 2018.

If the Microsoft board decided to oust Ballmer, his departure would come more quickly. But does anyone really think that Gates is going to fire his buddy Ballmer? And if he were to do so, who'd take over as the new Microsoft CEO? Windows and Windows Live President Steven Sinofsky has his hands full with Windows 8 and is supposedly still gunning to get the Windows Phone responsibilities added to his domain. Stephen Elop, the president of the Microsoft Business Division, has made no bones about the fact he'd like to be a CEO someday, but he's still more of an outsider than an insider at the company -- and Microsoft is not a place where outsiders tend to thrive. Many considered Robbie Bach, former president of the Entertainment and Devices Division, to be a possible Ballmer successor -- until he quit (or was pushed out) earlier this summer. COO Kevin Turner? There'd be a Microsoft mutiny if the head bean counter became the head honcho.

Ballmer has enacted many of the changes Wall Street wanted, including laying off more than 5,000 Microsoft employees, with continued rumors of more cuts to come. He stepped up the Microsoft marketing and development presence in the cloud. And he finally, though very belatedly, started trying to turn the Microsoft mobile ship around in an attempt to get the company back in the phone game. I'm not sure what else he -- or any other CEO -- could do to convince analysts and pundits that Microsoft still has growth potential.

When Gates relinquished his day-to-day duties at Microsoft, it signified the start of a new era at the company. Gates rewarded and promoted folks who were more technologists than business heads. And in the two years since Gates' last day at the office, a number of 'Bill's guys" have left the company. 'Steve's guys" -- the sales guys and MBA types -- have gotten more visibility and prominence. Many of Ballmer's critics are technologists longing for the 'good old days," when the company's developers were seen as kings.

But Microsoft is a very different company from what it was during Gates' heyday. Employees are older. Microsoft is a mature company, not a startup. And Gates wasn't always prescient about which technologies would triumph. Tablet PCs, IPTV, natural UIs -- all pet projects of Gates' -- still get lots of funding inside the company but have yet to yield any significant financial results.

I'm not a Microsoft shareholder. But if I were, I wouldn't be petitioning for Ballmer's impeachment. I think the 'developers, developers, developers" devil the 'Softies know is better than the devil they don't know. Do you?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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Reader Comments:

Thu, Jan 13, 2011

this article would be better if you would make the font a little smaller.

Tue, Aug 17, 2010 kevin florida

Yes Steve has been thier for sometime now,but the bottom line is that if the man is not doing his job . then its time to bring back bill & let someelse solve those malaria issues. so that way can bill can get ms back on it toes .

Mon, Aug 16, 2010

So the questions is what is the outlook looking like? Same stock/market position, or eroding? If the latter then action needs to be in place now to get ahead of that. Also, if the power of the windows and office "hawks" a good one. They appear to weild unchallenged power and whenever they see a potential threat to their empire they shut the thing down. Is this a good and open approach to the future prosperity of the company. Rather than seeing somethings as a threat they should see it in another way because you can be sure if they found a "threat" then you can be sure someone else will do what you didn't. So do you want your customers money or will you ensure it gets spent at MS?Remember, getting back customers is significantly harder than keeping the ones you have.

Sun, Aug 8, 2010 P. Dougla

I think all of this about Ballmer is rubbish. Investors hear detractors continually bash MS over one thing or another, then they see MS' consistently strong numbers over the course of the last decade, and they then take the safe road and leave the price of the stock relatively unchanged. For the most part, MS needs to take its case directly to the people and investors, and let them better value the company's stock. MS is faced with an image problem due to detractors, who turn around and chastise the company's CEO for the company's stock price, which has largely been because of them. (How convenient.) Detractors also point to MS stumbles as further signs that Ballmer must go, when Google makes about 10 times as many stumbles, and this is practically the norm of the computer industry. (E.g. Intel, HP, Dell and many other companies have many failed projects.) All of this is much ado about nothing. MS keeps coming out with spectacular quarterly results, and detractors point to a stock price situation they have largely created, and product stumbles - which in the grand scheme of things mean very little - to make life difficult for the CEO of a company, they do not like.

P. Douglas

Thu, Aug 5, 2010 Ally SF

Ballmer will be gone... in late 2010 or early 2011. You'll see the events play out. Windows Phone 7 will fail on launch, which will become the trigger for Ballmer's ousting.

Mon, Aug 2, 2010 Tom

I was tempted to voice my vote on this but I'll keep silent(mostly). Problem that I see is that it's its own worst enemy. They've grown so large that they're slow to react and hesitant to take chances/risks which once would've been taken. Even trying to offer a suggestion is near impossible these days due to their IP policy (and I suspect fear of yet another lawsuit). It may indeed be a different company today but elevating the sales, marketing and MBA people above those who actually build/maintain the product(intentionally or otherwise) is something I would dare never let happen in my firm - It sends a clear unmistakable message to your most precious assets. If it weren't for my developers none of us would have a job and so they are treated (as they should) like royalty and always will be while I'm at the helm.

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