A farewell to Gates

I haven’t said anything about Bill Gates’ announcement that he’ll be stepping out of day-to-day work over the next two years, yielding the chief architect reins to Ray Ozzie. Primarily it’s because my life has been pretty busy, but partly it’s because Gates has seemed, from the outside at least, like a non-factor in recent years. With Vista coming to market without big features like WinFS and several years overdue, and with Microsoft continuing to struggle to get customers to re-up for the newest versions of Office, it feels like Bill hasn’t had anything really new and compelling to show the market in a really long time.

Scott Rosenberg does a good job of connecting the dots in his supposition about Bill’s role in the Vista slip: on the one hand Bill had to watch as the scope of Vista was pared down and many revolutionary features were put aside, and on the other the culture that Bill and the Windows team had fostered meant that slips in the schedule were never acknowledged until it was far too late (thanks to Microsoft blogger Philip Su for some incisive and honest observations about the management culture in Windows).

My perspective from a greater distance is this: Bill and Steve Ballmer centralized Microsoft’s strategic decisions to an enormous degree, despite the generally broad operational freedom that individual product units enjoyed. And it’s not clear that that organizational move paid off. Might Microsoft be further along the path in dominating the enterprise software market—a place where the company does well with SQL Server and Exchange but has yet to make a splash with other business and IT apps despite years of investment—if the enterprise business had been able to duck the Windows tax? And by that, I mean the internal Windows tax that every business at Microsoft faces: every business has to show how it’s relevant to the corporate cash cow, and heaven forbid that the busines s plan suggests that the new initiative should embrace a multi-platform, multivendor view of the world instead of the Windows party line.

The result is that Gates rides off into the sunset as the champion of the desktop, but with many goals for Microsoft in the enterprise, on mobile devices, and in the home left unrealized. And with many users frustrated by years of vulnerabilities and diminishing returns.

Can Ray Ozzie turn this around? Maybe. He certainly has more enterprise cred than Bill. I’m not convinced that his vision is as broad as Bill’s, but that just might be a good thing for the long-term health of the company.