Is Bill Gates about to pull a Steve Jobs?
That seems to be the inference of a new Fortune magazine piece, quoting "one prominent chief executive" who'd "heard from someone close to Gates" that the Microsoft co-founder is "considering" a return to the helm of his own company.
Certainly, that event would boost Microsoft's stock price, however temporarily, and spark a heavy round of media comparisons between Gates and Jobs, who returned to Apple in the late 1990s and revived its then-flagging fortunes.
Gates has more than enough to occupy his time now, with a massive foundation doing its best to eradicate disease and poverty around the world. Moreover, Microsoft's strategy for at least the next year is already well under way. Gates reinserting himself into the Microsoft hierarchy at this moment has the potential to disrupt the ramp-up to Windows 8 and the cloud-and not necessarily in a good way.
Microsoft at the end of 2011 is not Apple circa 1997. The latter was on the verge of death, floundering as a result of some very bad corporate decisions and continuing pressure from Microsoft and its manufacturing partners. While Microsoft failed to anticipate and react proactively to certain technological shifts, most notably the consumer and business drift toward mobility, the company isn't going to implode within the next six weeks. Indeed, despite some ongoing issues-its online services division continuing to burn through hundreds of millions of dollars per quarter, for example-Microsoft's overall finances remain relatively robust.
Over the next few quarters, Microsoft plans to invest a healthy chunk of that cash in the rollout of Windows 8, a next-generation operating system the company hopes will equally appeal to tablet users and those with traditional PCs. In a bid to appeal to the former, Windows 8 features a start screen with a set of colorful tiles linked to applications-the better to tap and drag around with your fingers.
Microsoft will also continue to push for dominance of the living room with its redesigned Xbox Live dashboard, which integrates programming from HBO and other outlets in addition to serving as a portal for games. The company's Windows Phone efforts are reinvigorated, its partnerships with manufacturers like Nokia expected to pay off with new smartphones. And its cloud efforts will diversify further in both the consumer and business realms.
Gates coming back into this milieu as CEO would ultimately prove even more disruptive than simply removing Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's current leader, in favor of someone like Windows and Windows Live division President Steven Sinofsky. Any major boardroom shuffling inevitably kicks off all sorts of machinations, plots, disruptions, new hires, people leaving to "pursue other interests," canceled projects, pet projects restarted, budget reallocations and employees scrambling for favor.
To mitigate those disruptions, smart companies plan out their CEO transitions well in advance. A floundering company like Hewlett-Packard executes a more abrupt executive transition, and deals with the consequences, because it basically has no choice. And a nearly dead organization like Apple was in 1997 can do one because it has nothing to lose.
But Microsoft is in none of those positions, and Gates coming back would kick off that chaos at a time when his company needs to execute its big plans in an as-flawless-as-possible way. Gates probably realizes this, which is why it seems a likely bet that he'll continue to run his foundation rather than step back into Microsoft's command chair.