Forum: Bill Gates has left the building

Looking at the post-Gates Microsoft

A week has gone by since Bill Gates left Microsoft as a full-time employee, and Microsoft is still here.

Windows, Office, Word and other Microsoft applications are still on the desks of many millions of users around the globe, and Microsoft remains, in many respects, the world’s pre-eminent software vendor.

But, looking a bit further into the future of the post-Gates Microsoft, what’s in store?

Gates’ departure has led to a flurry of speculation about the future of the firm he co-founded in 1975, and there are a number of scenarios being put forward.

Online magazine InfoWorld has posited five possible visions for Microsoft 10 years down the track. The worst-case scenario has Microsoft shrinking to a slimmed-down version of its current self, active only in server OSes and application development, after its Windows-Office duopoly is pummelled by on-demand and open-source alternatives.

The best-case scenario has Microsoft achieving the same kind of dominance in its non-Windows and Office products that it currently has in those areas. Office and other Microsoft apps run on any device, anywhere.

Other predictions have Gates doing a Steve Jobs (or Michael Dell) and returning in a few years’ time to rescue an ailing Microsoft.

Crystal-ball gazing is fun, but with Gates now having left the Redmond campus, it’s also good time to look back, to reflect on his time at the company he and Paul Allen set up after Gates dropped out of Harvard.

How to describe Gates? Monopolist and opportunist come to mind, and as one online summator of Gates’ legacy has pointed out, “visionary” probably isn’t the right word to describe him, as his real talent was to spot already-emerging trends in computing and capitalise on them.

Then again, “visionary” is appropriate when you consider Gates’ and Allen’s early vision of a computer on every desk and in every home.

Vindictive? Microsoft’s crushing of Netscape in the browser wars of the late ’90s might seem so at first sight, until you remember that Netscape’s Marc Andreessen made some injudicious comments after Netscape’s share float about how Java and Netscape together were going to sink Windows.

Gates did himself and Microsoft no favours by responding to the threat posed by Netscape as harshly as he did, however — moves such as inducing various industry partners and Netscape customers to switch to Internet Explorer led to the US Department of Justice initiating anti-trust proceedings against Microsoft.

Ultimately, though, he was right to position Internet Explorer as the number one browser after, belatedly, seeing the importance of the web.

Ruthless? Obviously. Driven, obsessed — Gates was all of those things.

As this is beginning to sound like an obituary, it’s timely to remember that Gates is still very much alive and that “philanthropist” is now the best label to give him.

Also, as’s John Dvorak has pointed out, Gates is still chairman, so he hasn’t fully retired. And according to Microsoft’s website, he is still an “adviser on key development projects”.

This leads Dvorak to conclude that Gates’ so-called retirement is a publicity stunt. But being chairman and an adviser on some projects isn’t the same as being a full-time employee, and despite Dvorak’s plea for “no more odes to Bill Gates, Please”, this is a good time for an ode.

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