Microsoft made a surprising, intriguing and dramatic announcement on Tuesday: No, it wasn't Satya Nadella's appointment as CEO to replace Steve Ballmer. It was the news that Bill Gates would step down as chairman and take on a new tech advisory role in which he'll substantially increase his involvement with the company he co-founded in 1975.
Nadella, a 22-year Microsoft veteran and successful Ballmer lieutenant, was from the start on that short list of choices that would be logical. The Gates announcement, however, was a bit of a curveball. For the past 14 years, Gates has been gradually and methodically distancing himself from Microsoft.
That process started in 2000, when he handed over the CEO job to Ballmer, remaining as chairman and becoming chief software architect. In 2006, he announced his intention to give up the chief software architect job after a two-year transition and pass on the duties to Craig Mundie and Ray Ozzie, two industry luminaries who were CTOs at Microsoft.
With that transition complete in 2008, Gates stopped working full time at Microsoft and devoted himself to his philanthropic work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which he and his wife had founded in 2000.
Gates' decision to distance himself from Microsoft's daily operations sounded firm and permanent.
"Our business and technical leadership has never been stronger, and Microsoft is well-positioned for success in the years ahead. I feel very fortunate to have such great technical leaders like Ray and Craig at the company," Gates said in that 2006 press release.
"This was a hard decision for me," Gates added. "I'm very lucky to have two passions that I feel are so important and so challenging. As I prepare for this change, I firmly believe the road ahead for Microsoft is as bright as ever."
Clearly, some things didn't go as planned. Although Microsoft had a mobile OS and a dominant desktop OS, it missed out on the smartphone and tablet revolution as Apple, Google, Samsung and others rode it to the bank. Although Microsoft had a Web portal and a search engine, Google ran away with the search advertising market and Facebook became the social networking leader. Google managed to carve a space in the cloud email and collaboration market with Google Apps, and Microsoft didn't counter with a comparable option until 2011 with Office 365.
Ozzie left Microsoft at the end of 2010, and Mundie, in the latest company reorganization last July, went from chief software architect to special advisor to the CEO, a role he retains.
So it's intriguing that Gates, who has been fully and happily engaged working at his foundation, is now going to devote a third of his work time to advising Microsoft on products and technology.
A few questions pop to mind right away. How effective can Gates be as a technology advisor when he has been away from the daily computer industry fray since 2008? How much effort will he put into this, and for how long? Is he really interested in doing this? Could his influence be counter-productive?
Clearly Gates was a visionary when he founded Microsoft and led it to astounding success in the 1980s and 1990s. But toward the end of his tenure as CEO, with the rise of the Internet, his vision wasn't as clear, as evidenced by Netscape taking an early lead with its Web browser.
Asked for more details about Gates' role, a Microsoft spokeswoman said via email that the company had no further details to share beyond what it announced on Tuesday.
"At Satya's request, Bill will step up to take on a new role as Technology Advisor, focused on supporting Satya and the company in shaping the overall technology and product direction," she said.
Industry analyst Jack Gold, of J. Gold Associates, said Gates' role doesn't seem to be well-defined yet.
At this point in his career, it would be unfair to expect Gates to act as a visionary who can read the tea leaves and unequivocally point Microsoft in the direction of future success. "I'm not sure he can do that," Gold said.
However, Gates could be very effective as a spokesman for the company, an area where Ballmer, for all his passion, bravado and sales ability, wasn't the best, according to Gold.
"Microsoft needs a better voice," he said. "You want someone to be out in front promoting your positions, and he can do that very well with customers, partners and, very important, with Wall Street."
He also could be very valuable helping Nadella learn the CEO job, and introducing him to other CEOs with whom Gates has long-standing relationships, said James Staten, a Forrester Research analyst.
"It's going to work out fine," Staten said. "Satya wanted Gates to stay and play a mentor role. There are things Gates knows about being a CEO, and about being the CEO of this company in particular, that would take Satya a long time to learn."
Staten is also optimistic that Gates will be effective as a technology sounding board for Nadella, since both men are deep technologists. In addition, it may be a plus that Gates has been away from Microsoft's daily operations, because he could bring an outsider's perspective, he said.
However, if Gates is still advising Nadella a year from now, that will be a red flag, Staten said. Gates would rather spend all his work time at his foundation, so a longer stint would mean Nadella was struggling with the job, he said.
"If Gates can't leave [this role] in a year, then the CEO pick was wrong," Staten said.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.
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