That sucking sound is the leadership vacuum left by Gates.
Bill Gates isn't really leaving Microsoft; he's just shifting how much time
he spends there.
In late May, I chatted with Gates over cocktails before he and CEO
Steve Ballmer made their final public appearance together at the D Conference
in Carlsbad, Calif. Gates said he spends about 80 percent of his time at
Microsoft and another 20 percent at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
From July 1, that 80-20 ratio will flip, with the majority of Gates' time being
dedicated to the charitable endowment.
And Gates really hasn't been involved in day-to-day operations at Microsoft
for a while.
For example, during the D Conference, Gates said, other than consulting with
Ballmer as a friend, he wasn't involved in Microsoft's attempted, and failed,
takeover of Yahoo. In addition, Gates' role as visionary has greatly
diminished, particularly after his successors-Ray Ozzie, chief software
architect, and Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer-fully assumed
their positions during the last year.
As chairman and the largest stockholder in the company, Gates will always
have a role at Microsoft. But as chief influencer, Gates left long ago.
Gates announced his departure two years ago, as part of a long transition
from monopolist to philanthropist. But Gates' exit really started in 2000, when
Ballmer replaced him as CEO. A transition
from charismatic founding leader burdens any company, and Microsoft has taken
eight years to move from Gates to Ballmer. The change is sure to affect
Microsoft during its fourth decade as an incorporated entity.
Even with waning influence, however, Gates is an important figurehead who
casts a long shadow over most other Microsoft executives.
Technical expertise is one reason.
Gates' May 1995 "The Internet Tidal Wave" memo is perhaps the best
example of his technical background as a foundation for vision. Gates was
looking the wrong way when Tim Berners-Lee built the first Web browser and Web
server on adopted or open standards in 1991. As the Web began to grow in the
early 1990s, Gates obsessed about dial-up networks AOL
But when Gates finally really looked at the Internet, he understood the
competitive threat to Windows. The May 1995 memo accurately articulated how the
Web promoted standards out of Microsoft's control, where the company should
control Internet standards and what would be a much stronger integration
strategy across all product lines. The vision he scribed 13 years ago is still
a blueprint followed by Microsoft today.
Ballmer admittedly is no Bill Gates. During the D Conference Ballmer joked,
"I ran the Windows 1.0 development team."
Rather, he's a sales and marketing guy, and his background has shaped the
way Microsoft is run now. In fact, there is a stark dichotomy of leadership:
technologists like Ozzie and Mundie, whose leadership lineage descend from
Gates, on one side, and executives with sales backgrounds like Chief Operating
Officer Kevin Turner on the other.