Famous for his aggressive management and even ruthless business tactics, Microsoft's Bill Gates now wants to be known primarily as a software guru.
Many wonder why the world's wealthiest person would relinquish control of arguably one of the world's most influential companies to assume the somewhat ambiguous tasks of a "chief software architect."
But Gates looked like he was struggling to contain his delight Thursday, when he said he would hand over his chief executive reins to Microsoft President Steve Ballmer, so he could take on a more visionary role in software development.
Gates said he wants to return to his roots in programming, an early
passion, which consumed him as a teenager, and which he later
dropped out of Harvard University to pursue full time.
``I'm returning to what I love most -- focusing on
technologies for the future,'' Gates said Thursday at a surprise news
conference at the company's Redmond, Wash., headquarters.
Asked if he would now be perched in front of his computer writing software code, Gates quipped: "I might be threatening to write code. That's
something that I haven't been able to do in three or four years."
Gates May Have Become Bored
But some analysts believe Gates, 44, tired of his corporate duties, especially with the world's largest software company now embroiled in a lengthy Justice Department antitrust suit that could drag on for years.
Last year, Microsoft was found to have used monopoly power
to crush its competition. The company is currently braced for a
ruling on a remedy, which could be as extreme as a court-imposed
breakup of the software giant.
In videotaped testimony at the government's antitrust trial
last year, Gates repeatedly claimed he did not remember key
details in his company's development of an Internet browser and
its negotiations with rival Netscape Communications Corp.
Government lawyers called his performance under oath ``bizarre''
and ``simply not credible.''
Such criticism may have spurred the software titan to take a leap in a new direction. But others say it's simply a personal choice.
"Clearly Gates is bored," said Michael Gartenberg, a Microsoft
watcher and vice president of the Gartner Group, a technology
research firm. "He loves innovation, and he loves to play with the
technology. This will let him do that."
Said Jeff Raikes, Microsoft group vice president for sales and support and a close friend to Gates: "This is what Bill really wants to do. He's been chomping at the bit to take this on."
That's not to say that Gates, who had been CEO for Microsoft's
entire 25-year history, was never happy in the top spot. The
meteoric rise of Microsoft, as well as Gates' personal wealth, is
proof of Gates' business acumen and, critics say, his
The onetime high-school computer nerd, who has since
redefined what truly wealthy means, is worth about $80 billion
due to his holdings in Microsoft.
Ballmer Seen as Perfect Fit
Meanwhile, Ballmer, who has been at Gates' side for nearly 20 years, is a
perfect fit to assume the title of CEO. Ballmer, 43, is seen as
rather loud and blustery he didn't bother with a microphone at
Thursday's news conference but his business credentials are
impressive. As Microsoft's long-time vice president of sales,
Ballmer helped make Windows a household name through the 1990s.
His new role, insiders said, is nothing more than an extension
of his role as president, a post he assumed in July 1998. At the
time of that promotion, he ran full bore through the crowd at a
company meeting at Seattle's Kingdome, the theme from the
"Superman" movie booming through the speakers.
"What people miss is that despite everything, Ballmer gets the
job done," Gartenberg said. "This is a natural evolution of his
With Ballmer at the helm, Microsoft will likely become more
aggressive as it enters new technology markets with its new
Internet strategy. As Ballmer announced Thursday, the company will
market new software that can be accessed through any device from
personal computers and handhelds to cell phones and toasters via
Ballmer is the son of Swiss immigrants who grew up in Detroit,
where his father worked for Ford Motor Co. He holds a degree in
applied math and economics from Harvard, and worked at Procter &
Gamble Co. as an assistant product manager. He attended the
Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Ballmer's bulldog attitude is what attracted Gates when he first
met Ballmer at Harvard University, where both were students. The
two have collaborated closely ever since, and Ballmer calls their
relationship "totally unique in the business world." Gates made
him best man at his wedding to Melinda French.
Their vision is identical when it comes to the company's
direction, but now Gates will focus nearly all of his energies on
the technology, while Ballmer brings the business end along.
"Steve is a great manager and a great motivator," Raikes said.
"I've worked for Steve for 18 years, and I can say that the
company's in good hands."
And while Ballmer takes charge of the company, Gates can return
to shaping the company's next-generation vision for Windows.
In the end, though, Microsoft's business will not change
radically. Gates said software developers will see new tools and
new software by this summer, but the average consumer won't see any
radical innovations from Microsoft for at least two years. Until
then, it'll be business as usual at Microsoft, if there is such a
"Think of this as the next chapter in Bill and Steve's
excellent adventure," Gartenberg said.