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By GCN Staff

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Running the trains on time: On Bill Gates' departure

As you probably have heard, Bill Gates plans to step down from his post of Microsoft's chief software architect in 2008. In effect, Gates is shedding the last vestiges of any day-to-day role he now has in directing the company he cofounded.

The trade press is heralding the move as an end of an era. For once, they are right, we think.

Some influences are so large that it is hard to see their impact on daily life. Microsoft's effect on the computer industry, not to mention modern culture in general, is one such example.

Gates has done as much as anyone in expanding the computing beyond the back office (and hobbyist workbench) and onto the desks of most people. Science fiction writers have been envisioning everyday computing since ENIAC was first fired up. Gates led the heavy lifting that actually got it done. Oh sure, the technology was moving in that direction anyway. Nonetheless, it was this lanky and cocky Seattle kid who pulled it together.

Back in the late-90s, I interviewed an executive of a company that made popular PC games. The dirty secret of the gaming development world, he told me at the time, is that almost every developer secretly appreciated that Microsoft Windows dominated the PC market. Sure, they never would come out and actually say that. They would rail against the monopolistic tendencies of the company, the flakiness of the OS. But they were secretly relieved they didn't have to rewrite their games for five or six different operating systems. Such extensive porting, a tedious and error-prone job, was a common practice back in the late 1980s. Microsoft drove the vast majority of the consumer PC market to one platform, for better of worse. And so developers could focus on developing more games.

Of course, gaming is only one community. But multiply this effect across hundreds of different vertical markets, as communities of like-minded people are now known as, and you can start to appreciate the full length of the shadow Microsoft cast.

Why Gates himself became the lightning rod for this change is a question best left for historians. Assessments of Gates as a programmer and manager can vary wildly, depending on the source. Here on the government side of things, we saw Gates as attentive to what was happening, at least on the macro level. I spoke with GCN's Editor in Chief Tom Temin, a long-time observer in the government IT market who has met Gates on a few brief occasions. He remembered Gates as someone who truly listened to his customers. He built up a great rapport with the Army, in particular.

Still, something about Gates remains ineffable. Sure, CEO Steve Ballmer still drives the ship, but even the most ruthless business practices will fall short of their intended targets without at least some technical ace-in-the-sleeve to back the bluster.

So whether the company can keep its momentum sans Gates is open to question.

We don't see the crisis in Redmond that others do, the stagnancy of the company's share prices notwithstanding. Despite the buzz around platform-independent Web applications, desktop computers will still need operating systems for some time to come. And the choices that OEMs have now are about the same as they were ten years ago (less, actually, now that BeOS and OS/2 are no longer available).

At the at G-CON conference held last week by Gartner, Microsoft general manager Alan Yates sketched out the new features of the next version of Microsoft Office, another success story for the company.

Like Microsoft Windows itself, Office was bundled with a number of widely-used applications (along with some not-so widely used ones). Microsoft's bailiwick is, as much as it can be reduced to any one thing, in domesticating cutting-edge technologies, reducing prices and making them as easily usable for the widest range of people possible.

In this regard, spreadsheets and word processors were no-brainers'number crunching and document writing are pretty fundamental activities within any office. Yates portrayed Office 12's new capabilities, particularly the new collaboration and business intelligence capabilities, as a continuation of this practice. Analysis and collaboration, though, are far more nebulous activities than keeping a ledger. And both activities are more difficult to boil down to a set of common behaviors across all computer users.

If Microsoft developers and managers can continue to chorale users under a common set of general definitions of what it means to compute, then Gates' legacy will have been successfully passed on.

Posted By Joab Jackson

Posted by Brad Grimes, Joab Jackson on Jun 20, 2006 at 9:39 AM


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