Gates and Ballmer
I was actually an employee at Microsoft the day that Bill Gates announced that he would be shifting to part-time at Microsoft to work full-time at his foundation: "Starting two years from now, I will shift, work full-time at the Foundation, part-time at Microsoft as Chairman and as a senior technical adviser." That was just over two years ago, June 15, 2006. I actually attended the employee "town hall meeting" at which Bill and Steve Ballmer discussed the announcement. That was certainly an interesting experience, both from a business and corporate culture perspective. I had only been an employee for exactly one month at that point. You can read the press release and the transcript of the the press conference. It was certainly a surprise and somewhat of a shock, but as an investor and a technologist the decision really didn't bother me much at all. I have always had mixed feelings about Bill's technical role and whether he really was as "essential" to the technical development of products as a lot of people imagined or whether his real brilliance was in how to look at markets and figure out the right angle of attack to enter and dominate those markets. Even then, his "brilliance" was not always as dazzling as one might hope, as we have seen with Microsoft's forays into online services and even Vista. On the other hand, I have always been deeply impressed by Steve Ballmer's dogged persistence, his "we just keep coming and coming and coming" attitude and competitive spirit that has in fact helped Microsoft achieve a higher level of success than any other company might have done with similar technical capabilities. I attended a bunch of company events at which he spoke and never once came away with an impression other than that he was really sharp, really on top of the market and customer needs, and a really great corporate leader.
Although it may appear to be "bad" news that Bill will be "gone", the truth is that Bill will still be working part-time at Microsoft and, as the press release stated, "after July 2008 Gates would continue to serve as the company's chairman and an advisor on key development projects." That is a key distinction from this misguided view that Gates is "leaving" Microsoft and will no longer be helping to shape the technical and product directions of the company. Bill will still be participating in helping to shape "key development projects."
I have great faith in the technical and product abilities of Craig Mundie and Ray Ozzie. In fact, the truth is that neither of these two technical leaders really needs Bill at all. But the two of them plus Bill part-time is a very awesome technical leadership team.
I really do have great faith in Steve Ballmer's ability to run the business and oversee the overall marketing direction of the company. Sure, there have been some stumbles, notably with Vista and Yahoo, but the truth is that you can't be as big and successful as Microsoft without taking big risks, and the nature of big risks is that sometimes they do not work out as well as planned. A Microsoft without risk-taking would not be a Microsoft.
I wish Bill luck on his charitable ventures and remain confident that Microsoft is in good hands with Steve Ballmer, Craig Mundie, and Ray Ozzie. We can all look forward to a Microsoft that "keeps coming and coming and coming."