John D. Rockefeller. Henry Ford. Andrew Carnegie. Bill Gates.
Few today would dispute that Gates is on a par with the great business figures of history. His genius melds deep technical knowledge, strategic business thinking and the force of personality that only a few figures have ever commanded--and to which none of his peers has come close.
Gates remains chairman of Microsoft, but on June 27 he steps down from day-to-day activities at the company--a software empire, really, with an estimated 84,000 employees and $68 billion in annual revenue. Moving forward, Gates will spend the bulk of his time on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Starting from programming a time-shared minicomputer via teletype nearly four decades ago, Gates changed computing, changed business and changed our lives. Along the way, he amassed America's greatest current fortune--much of which he is, like the business giants of yesteryear, devoting to charity.
While many of Gates' computer industry contemporaries have been technologically brilliant, few of those bright minds have had excellent, or even good, business sense.
Conversely, there have been many stellar business executives in the technology industry, but few, if any, industry stars with the same hard-wired passion for technology as Gates.
But, despite Gates' love of programming, which took hold when he was a teenager, the balance he struck between business and technology always tilted toward business--and, above all, profit.
"Gates had technical and business knowledge that no one else really had," said Erik Brynjolfsson, the Schussel Family Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the Center for Digital Business at MIT. "His technical knowledge was great, but the success of Microsoft was due to his business knowledge and skill, even more than technical knowledge. He was absolutely brilliant, going beyond cutting-edge economic theory. He pioneered new practices and ran circles around his competitors."
The result: a software mega-vendor with a vast array of products--ranging from consumer games to systems management solutions--anchored by a Windows installed base of about 1 billion users and aggressively seeking to maintain its dominance in a Web 2.0 world.