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 and CompuServe.
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.