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Last Updated: Friday, 16 June 2006, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
As one gate closes, another opens
Bill Gates is leaving Microsoft. Technology commentator Bill Thompson will miss him.

Ray Ozzie, AP
Ray Ozzie has a lot to think about as he takes over from Bill Gates
The news that Bill Gates is giving up his role as Microsoft's Chief Software Architect was the second item on Radio 4's Today programme on the morning it was announced.

While Gates will stay at Microsoft for the next two years, and even then will work part-time and remain the major shareholder in the company, the announcement marks the end of an era.

Making the announcement early gives shareholders and partners time to adapt to the new, post-Gates Microsoft, but of course his direct influence on the day to day direction of the company had already diminished greatly since he handed over the CEO role to Steve Ballmer.

While in some senses nothing will change, it's hard not so see this as a marker of a wider generational shift in the computing world. The old lions like Gates, Larry Ellison at Oracle and Bill Joy at Sun are reaching the end of their time at the head of the pack, and new people are taking over.

Still, the prominence given to the announcement is perhaps the greatest testament to Microsoft's success.

Gates, before anyone else, realised that the commoditisation of computer hardware and the continuing application of Moore's Law made it possible to aim to have a computer in every office, on every desk and in every office.

He drove Microsoft towards that goal by creating a software industry for personal computers that more closely resembled the publishing industry than the old-style computing world where operating systems and applications were sold as part of a hardware deal.

He ruthlessly undermined the competition, buying those rivals he could, competing with those who could not be bought, sometimes by skirting the law, and being willing to make mistakes, learn from them and come back again.

Version control

The mobile phone I currently use runs Windows Mobile version 5.0. The first Windows smartphones were universally derided, and I only know one person who ever bought one, Simon aka the-fanatical-early-adopter.

Windows-based television set-top boxes were a failure 10 years ago but now IPTV is making inroads all over the cable industry.

And of course Microsoft Office is still the leading tool for creating and managing documents, presentations, databases and spreadsheets. Even the best open source projects, like OpenOffice, are just attempts to replicate the functions and appearance of Office, showing little real innovation.

While Microsoft is struggling to cope in the networked world it helped to create, and the continuing delays to Windows Vista and regular stream of security alerts about its current products have damaged the company's image, we should not assume that its time has passed.

Bill Thompson
While you may be able to take the programmer out of Microsoft, I wonder if you will be able to take Microsoft out of the programmer.
For one thing Google has not really delivered on its promised web-based alternatives to Microsoft's office tools, and few of the Web 2.0 start-ups show signs of being able to challenge the beast of Redmond.

And Microsoft, like few other companies in history, has shown a willingness to embrace change and shift direction, not only when it famously embraced the internet and abandoned an attempt to build a closed, proprietary Microsoft Network.

Recent moves to defuse the war of words between Microsoft and the open source community show a level of understanding that both can co-exist, and that GNU/Linux is now part of the computing eco-system within which Windows must operate.

The launch of Windows Live and its web-based services shows an understanding of how the software and services worlds are changing, and gives Microsoft a position from which to challenge Google in areas other than search.

And of course Microsoft's home-grown search engine is being used by millions already, and the company has enough money to make it as good as any of the competitors and an installed base of Windows users who are likely to try it and may find they prefer it to the alternatives.

Changing gear

Steve Ballmer, AFP
Steve Ballmer has been running Microsoft day-to-day for some time
Unlike IBM, which simply denied that anything could replace the mainframe until it was too late, Bill Gates has been far more like the old English king Canute, who demonstrated his intelligence by sitting on a beach while the tide came in to show his advisors that not even a king can resist the natural world.

So what will become of him now? He claims that he will devote himself to his charitable foundation, focusing on health care for the poorest people of the world, and he certainly has the financial resources needed to make a difference.

While you may be able to take the programmer out of Microsoft, I wonder if you will be able to take Microsoft out of the programmer.

Yet I doubt that Gates will become a Lear-like figure, railing against the policies and practices of his successors and wandering aimlessly from research lab to research lab in search of the power and respect he once held, only to turn up ranting "blow wind, and crack your passwords" at a Linux Expo.

He is more likely to use the coming months to get rid of the nerd pose that has served him so well over the years and reveal the articulate, intelligent and extremely directed figure that has clearly been there all the time.

For Gates realised early on that being seen as a geek was a big advantage in negotiations with MBA-wielding executives, and that by disguising his sharp business acumen behind a dorky haircut and poor social skills, he could win deals and grow his company.

We may be about to see the real Bill Gates for the first time, and I suspect he will remain as challenging, sharp and ambitious in his new life as he was in his work at Microsoft.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet

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