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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