Don’t Pine for Bill Gates, Microsoft Fans

By  |  Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 11:00 am

Putting the kibosh on one of 2011′s biggest non-stories, Bill Gates has said he isn’t going to return to full-time work at Microsoft. Thank heavens. His current gig as a philanthropist matters far more than anything he might do to nudge Windows Phone in the right direction or get Windows 8 off to a good start. (I’m convinced that when the world remembers Gates in a century or two, his philanthropy will be the first thing that comes to mind; Microsoft will be the second career that also deserves a mention.)

The notion that Gates might have staged a Microsoft comeback seems to have been wishful thinking more than possible reality. Microsoft faces lots of challenges. Some people think that its current CEO, Steve Ballmer, is doing a lousy job of tackling them. Who better than its co-founder to rise to the challenge? Wouldn’t it be pretty much like Steve Jobs’ return to Apple, which worked out OK?

If Bill Gates had come back to Microsoft and had staged a dramatic turnaround, it would have been a great story. But if he had strolled into the CEO’s office, asked Ballmer to give up his chair, and sat down, I don’t think it would have had a dramatic impact on the company’s fortunes.

Here’s why:

Gates’ tendency to look at everything as a PC wouldn’t help. The man had an amazing capacity to figure out new product categories and jump into them quickly–starting in 1975, when he and Paul Allen thought that this personal computer thing might amount to something. But almost always, he saw new categories as extensions of the PC. As the failure of the Tablet PC and Pocket PC show, that strategy was always problematic. It would be an even more surefire recipe for failure today.

Ballmer is busy mopping up some of Bill Gates’ mistakes. For instance, Microsoft poured immense resources into Windows Vista–and shipped a terrible product that people hated. It hurt Windows, it hurt Microsoft, and it generally represented a major step backwards during a period when Microsoft desperately needed to prepare itself for the future. And it all happened during Gates’ tenure.

Microsoft is still being managed in a largely Gatesian manner. Steve Ballmer isn’t John Sculley, who moved to exorcise Apple of Steve Jobs’ supposedly unhealthy influence. He’s Bill Gates’ longtime friend and partner–the guy who was at Gates’ side in the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s. He’s doing many of the things Gates would do if he were more actively involved with the company.

Ballmer-era Microsoft is doing some really good stuff. Yes, the company is still capable of spectacular missteps. But Windows 7 is good. Xbox is good. Windows Phone is great. Windows 8 is, if nothing else, a gutsy gamble. Overall, in fact, Microsoft may be putting out better products now than it did in the Gates era. If the company flounders in the next few years, I don’t think it will be because Ballmer has been asleep at the wheel.

Bill Gates never left Microsoft. He’s still chairman. And even if he’s no longer involved in day-to-day management, you’ve got to think that if he had any magical secrets for curing what ails the company, he’d have told Ballmer about them by now.

We’ll never know how different Microsoft in 2011 would be if Bill Gates hadn’t handed the reins over to Ballmer in 2008. [Note: As a commenter mentions, Ballmer became CEO in 2000; Gates was Chief Software Architect 2000-2008, then formally retired from full-time activity.] But here’s my guess, based on everything I know from 33 years of Gates-watching and Microsoft-watching: It probably wouldn’t be much different at all. And if it was different, it wouldn’t necessarily be in better shape.

[Photo: PC World's 1987 Bill Gates centerfold]



22 Comments For This Post

  1. Jonathan Says:

    Bill Gates didn't hand the reins over to Ballmer in 2008. He handed the reins over in January 2000, at which point Ballmer become CEO and took full control of Microsoft. As chief software architect, Gates had already begun to step back dramatically from full time duties.

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    Yep, he had already scaled back. But I don’t think that the Microsoft of 2000-2008, during Gates’ first period of reduced involvement, was a meaningfully different beast than the one of 1975-1999. In many ways, the company has been remarkably consistent all these years.

  3. GregA Says:

    Outside of developing basic, Gates' major strength was finding ways to take other peoples ideas and products and put the MS logo on them; and then let the massive MS legal department deal with the lawsuits. After Basic, Gates never really invented anything and most MS productsare designed to require a major support staff which is why they were successful in the corportate arena. Why would any manager bring in a product or suite of products that did away with their own power base? It's certainly easy to be recognized as a philantropist when you have, effectively, picked peoples po kets clean with subpar products and upgrades overa 27 year period.

  4. @Jasoco Says:

    Push Ballmer out and Microsoft might have a chance. For now, Ballmer is just an 800 pound gorilla weighing the company down.

  5. Hornedrat Says:

    Think ballmer is good at some things but does not have the cult of personality that Steve jobs had leaving to unfair comparisons between the two.

    I doubt very much that outside of major strategy decisions that either Steve actually spent many hours on making low level decisions. Certainly my CEO has enough on his plate without interfering in the day to day business at a low level, thats why they employ middle management.

    That's arguably why bill decided to be chief software architect in order to away from constant meetings discussing high level items that he had no interest in as opposed to leading very skilled teams in making a product,

    I am also sick of vista bashing, it has and was not as bad as people claim, it was a necessary step and forms the foundation of windows 7 so it can't be that bad

  6. nowindowsthx Says:

    Yes, Vista was that bad. Windows 7 only looks "good" compared to Vista.

    Vista still takes far too many resources for a mere operating system, and still has core faults that make it wholly unsuited for all tasks (yes, W7 is still a completely insecure system at it's core)

  7. Joe Says:

    Uh – this is exactly what Jobs did at Apple as well.

  8. Analyst Says:

    Philanthropy by Gates is such an oxymoron. Vista, Windows 7 and 8 (next) are just DRM platforms!
    If Gates or (by extension) Microsoft were such philanthropists then they would be providing GOOD, SAFE software at a COMPETITIVE PRICE, not using their enormous resources to price gouge everyone and compel manufactures to license their systems. Windows 8 looks like it will effectively block non windows software from being used by the public. Freedom of choice will be blocked.
    Basic Economics 101. If you provide a good product at a fair price people are less likely to compete or attack your product!

  9. joe Says:

    No wonder everyone and their mother attack apple products ;-)

  10. Harry McCracken Says:

    Believe me, I admire Gates the philanthropist far more than I do Gates the technologist…

  11. @Billionairfiles Says:

    Gates Lied, Novell Lawyer Tells Jury. Mircosoft sabotaged WordPerfect and QuottoPro

  12. Dazzaj Says:

    Like Jobs and Apple that charge excess of 30% – 50% for EVERYTHING on their limited equipment.
    Jobs and Apple are well known for NOT giving to anyone, let alone donations, and "Good, Safe and Competitive" products.
    I don't see Apple allowing "Non Apple" products to work on their system.

  13. Dazzaj Says:

    I fully agree. Ballmer should have been removed years ago.
    Microsoft needs new blood, not Gates, not Ballmer.

  14. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Yawn. Novel management was SO incompetent at that time, they couldn't tie their own laces…

  15. Robert Says:

    totally agree…

  16. Brandon Backlin Says:

    If you're referring to the whole, "Windows 8 will be tied to a unique identifier in the UEFI" thing, that will only apply to computers that ship in a box; and even then, people are free to create a recovery disc, wipe the partition, dump whatever other OS they want on it; and if they don't like it, reinstall Windows. As a matter of fact, activation will be a cinch, since the unique identifier can be passed to Microsoft and they can validate it.

    It's the people that build their own computers I'm worried about. They have to continue dealing with the same licensing stuff as the last three versions of Windows.

  17. Hornedrat Says:

    Strangely I have 4 computers at home and find vista is perfectly fine, and strangely it does all tasks I use it for such as aming, work, internet, video encoding etc. it certainly beats the pants of any of the Linux variants I have tried! I want to use my computers not rebuild them every five minutes. Not had a mac at home but my work one doesnt make my windows laptop look awful. I have even used a tablet running windows when I have lectured and found that easier then my iPad for example.

    Frankly it seems that some people would be down on windows or up on some others no matter what and I prefer windows to Linux and find it on a par with OSX.

    So no your comment is specious and lacking when I compare it to my experience of using software in my real world. Different strokes for different folks hence why competition is good.

  18. John Says:

    poor tiny brains..

  19. Xyzzy Says:

    I'm not sure which distros you tried or when, but once I dumped Ubuntu (and anything based on it) in early 2010, I found that the major problems — instability, need/near-need for clean installs every version, etc. — went away. (I'm a regular user that has just been relying on it for a few years, not a geek/guru/whatever.)

    FWIW, I relied on Windows from 1993 through 2008, and used it intermittently since then — I rank it on par with Linux, with both having slightly different strengths/weaknesses. OS X frustrates the daylights out of me, though; it seems horribly counter-intuitive, and the Machead I dated had more problems (major & minor) than I used to run into with any Windows/Linux version.

  20. Mohammed Says:

    The PC and OS were pushed down Microsoft's throat by an IBM frustrated wth Kildall when Microsoft was only a "language" company. IBM delivered the whole powere to Microsoft as a reaction to Apple's personal computer. So Jobs is actually the one behind the fortunes of Microsoft.

  21. Brody Says:

    Fair article. (I think Bill is happy to enjoy the fruits of his labour[read:billions], and see how Microsoft changes in this pivotal course)

    But Harry McCracken? That really your name, or are you just having a laugh?

  22. The_Heraclitus Says:

    LOL! Um, sure.