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Bill Gates steps aside at Microsoft

Steve Ballmer and Ray Ozzie may be the men with the plan after Gates finally steps down

The big story a couple of years ago was about the possibility that Microsoft would be split into two by the United States government. The big story of this year might be that it already has, but by Bill Gates.

When he announced late Thursday that he would start loosening the reins over the conglomerate he engineered three decades ago, industry observers began thinking about Microsoft’s next-generation leadership, the way a CIO might look for a replacement version of a product once he finds out his existing model is about to be discontinued. In any successful company, succession planning is difficult, but at Microsoft it is less a changing of the guard and more like something akin to a papal election. He may have stopped calling himself Microsoft’s president in 2000, but it doesn’t matter. More than Windows, more than Office, more than the image of a PC, Bill is the brand.

Steve Ballmer has spent the last six years making his own presence felt as Microsoft’s de facto leader, but it’s still Bill Gates who draws the crowds at CES, WinHEC, VSLive! and many other of the industry’s biggest events. Ballmer is the company’s administrator/bouncer, keeping the ship running in a fiscally sound manner while fending off legal and other business-related threats. It will be Ray Ozzie, whom Gates shrewdly hired last year, who will be called upon to do the vision thing. Once Gates steps aside, Microsoft’s fortunes will be increasingly determined by the degree to which their two roles become more defined, and distinct.

There can, of course, be considerable benefits to the passing of the torch. Gates was slow, on occasion, to embrace major technology changes, and in some cases tried to catch up by wrapping open standards-based approaches to computing within its own, proprietary development methodology. Ozzie, given his background with Lotus, should be well prepared to inculcate Web 2.0 sensibilities into Microsoft’s product line, creating the kind of collaborative capabilities the company boasts of, but doesn’t always deliver upon.

Ballmer, meanwhile, should use his salesmanship to invigorate Microsoft’s channel to see the opportunities around Windows Vista and Office 2007. Gates’s vague plans to fade out in 2008 may be a sign that Microsoft doesn’t have the confidence to pull off these launches without its founder’s starpower. By 2009, though, the Windows Live strategy should be in full swing, which also creates an opening for Ballmer to bolster Microsoft’s online ad strategy, which is still only in its infancy today.

All this is dependent on the notion that Ballmer and Ozzie will work well together, and that neither will leave Microsoft in the near future. As an insurance policy, the company should also start bringing more of its senior management and top researchers into the spotlight, demonstrating to the world (and to shareholders) that Microsoft is truly the sum of its parts and not the masterpiece of a lone genius.

The announcement this week was also an insurance policy too, of course – a reassurance that Microsoft is dealing with what you might call senior executive lifecycle management. A man who casts a shadow this big over his company, and the industry as a whole, will not go quietly into that good night. Something tells me that, much like Windows Vista, Bill Gates’s retirement will be delayed a couple of times too.