By Harry McCracken | 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.
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]