Microsoft had a momentous day Feb.4, with the announcement that Satya Nadella, its cloud chief and a 22-year veteran of the company, had taken the helm of the software giant as its new CEO, succeeding Steve Ballmer. It also marked a return, of sorts, for Bill Gates.
The company used the occasion to announce that Bill Gates, Microsoft's co-founder and first CEO, was stepping down as chairman of the board. His new title: founder and technology advisor. In his new role, he "will devote more time to the company, supporting Nadella in shaping technology and product direction."
Gates faced calls last year from top investors to bow out as chairman over fears that he would yield tremendous influence over Microsoft, and its new CEO, as the company transitions from a maker of licensed software to a "devices and services" company. During the months-long CEO search process, candidates reportedly voiced concerns that Gates and Ballmer, both of whom remain as board members, might interfere with their efforts to run the company.
In a brief video welcoming Nadella as CEO, Gates said he was "thrilled" Nadella had asked him to "step up, substantially increasing the time that I spend at the company." He went on to describe how much time he will devote to Microsoft and preview what his new duties entail.
"I'll have over a third of my time available to meet with product groups, and it will be fun to define this next round of products working together," Gates said. One industry analyst believes that Gates can accomplish this best by playing the strong, silent type while remaining supportive to Nadella.
"Bill Gates will play a critical though invisible role in Microsoft's future," Ted Schadler, Forrester vice president and principal analyst, wrote in a blog post. "By leaving the board of directors, he won't be making strategic decisions as chairman. But he will be a vital force behind the scenes."
Schadler warns that a more conspicuous presence could undermine not only Nadella, but Microsoft's efforts to conquer the cloud and prosper in a post-PC world. "If Bill Gates doesn't play this run-silent, run-deep role, then all bets are off," he said.
"If he and Mr. Ballmer are visible, even if their intentions are well-meaning, the new CEO would be undermined, second-guessed and passively blocked from accomplishing the critical business model pivot that lies ahead," added Schadler.
Similarly, Bill Whyman, an ISI Group analyst, told The New York Times that there are pros and cons to bringing Gates into the fold. "It is a dance because on the one hand, Gates is a huge asset."
Gates' status as a living legend, as far as the IT industry is concerned, can eclipse other concerns, Whyman said. "On the other hand, he casts a very big shadow, as any founder would. He's not just a company founder—he created the PC revolution."