Microsoft announced Thursday that chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates will be taking a reduced role in the company in July 2008. Gates will leave the day-to-day role in the company he founded to focus on the charitable work of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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Though Gates' move won't come for another two years, two leaders at the company, chief technical officers Ray Ozzie and Craig Mundie, are taking new roles right away.
Effectively immediately, Ozzie is the company's chief software architect, and Mundie is Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer.
Ozzie, the mind behind Lotus Notes, joined Microsoft last year when it acquired Ozzie's Groove Networks, a collaboration software firm. Elements of Groove Virtual Office are making their way into Microsoft's SharePoint suite.
Mundie came to Microsoft in 1992 to run the Consumer Platforms Division, which developed the company's non-PC operating systems. He also led the company's digital television efforts.
"I've decided that two years from today I will reorder my personal priorities," Gates said in a surprise press conference. But, he emphasized that he "will work full time for Microsoft for another two years. This gives us time to make a strong transition," said Gates. "I believe we can make this transition without missing a beat."
Gates started Microsoft in 1975 with his childhood friend Paul Allen. In January 2000, he stepped down as president and became chief software architect and chairman.
The announcement of his new rule comes at a time when Microsoft appears to be in transition. Its Longhorn operating system has been criticized as abnormally late. It is seeing a new upstart competitor in Google, to go along with a wide assortment of competitors that include Apple in desktop system software and media players, IBM in data centers, and Sony in electronic games. The company's stock has been standing still in recent months.
Gates' eventual departure was announced at the end of the fourth day of the company's yearly Tech Ed conference. Attendees questioned at the evening's Tech Ed party at Boston's Fenway Park did not expect much immediate change in the wake of this news. They did, however, credit the 50-year-old Gates as a leader.
"He set the direction for Microsoft," said a software development manager with a financial services firm.
"He and the people he worked with brought Microsoft from nothing to something," said a programmer and independent consultant.
"I think he has had an amazing run," said David Whil, CEO, SoftArtisans, a maker of reporting and other products that work with Microsoft Office. "He is one of the most productive executives of the last 100 years."
"And it shows a sign of maturity on his part and the company's part that he is stepping aside and letting new talent take the reins," said Whil.
What was Gates' impact on the software business? "Microsoft set the model for thousands of other software companies, and created tremendous wealth for Gates and for his employees and for people in the software business," said Wihl.
"Microsoft made software a viable concern, whereas before it was always considered an add-on to hardware," he continued. "Now we will see what is next, as the demands of software-as-a-service and open source arise, and that is an unknown future for everybody."
Focus on philanthropy
"He's not leaving he's just changing responsibilities," said programmer and industry observer Mike Gunderloy of Larkware. "It is too soon to tell what the effect will be."
Gunderloy said Mundie's and Ozzie's early actions will be closely watched.
"There is not another Bill Gates out there. Whoever they put in that job, people are going to say, 'They are not another Bill Gates,'" said Gunderloy.
Gunderloy was impressed with Gates' move to focus on philanthropy. "He's been doing this for 30 years," he said. "He's been doing it for a long time. If he wants to go give away money, now good for him, he deserves it. "