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Efforts by other Microsoft executives to depict Bill Gates’s decision to step back from the company as part of an orderly transition could do nothing on Thursday to disguise the historic nature of the news: the man who has shaped the business empire of the age is about to step off the commercial stage.

A fiercely competitive executive whose remorseless approach to business strategy has long made it the most feared company in the technology industry, Mr Gates’s personal style has been central to Microsoft’s success – as well as its near brush with disaster at the hands of the US government.

The company may employ more than 60,000 people, but Mr Gates’s intellectually combative nature still defines its corporate culture and he remains the figurehead for its armies of software developers.

Mr Gates’s precocious talents were evident from the age of 13, when he first took up computer programming. He founded Microsoft while studying as an undergraduate at Harvard and dropped out in his junior year to devote himself full-time to the company.

However, it was his business skills as much as his technology vision that were to lay the foundation for Microsoft’s success. The defining moment came in 1980, when IBM turned to the unknown software concern to supply an operating system that would run the new desktop computers it had designed.

Mr Gates took full advantage of the opening, going on to license his software to rival makers of IBM “clones” and eventually dominating the era of the personal

The IBM deal also highlighted another aspect of Mr Gates’s success: his opportunistic use of breakthroughs made by others to seize the initiative in a new technology market.

The first PC operating system, Microsoft called it DOS, had been rapidly licensed from its original developer when the IBM opening came up. Mr Gates performed a similarly deft manoeuvre at the end of the 1980s, copying the mouse-driven “graphical user interface” developed by Xerox to lay the foundation for the boom in PC adoption that was to follow.

The aggressively competitive style that Mr Gates promoted at the software upstart was to come back to haunt the company, however.

Its attack on Netscape, whose internet browser had helped to promote mass-
market adoption of the internet, drew the scrutiny of US regulators, eventually prompting a judge to order a break-up of Microsoft.

That order was revoked after the more business-friendly Bush administration had come to office, although not before Mr Gates himself had stepped back to take a less high-profile role at the company he co-founded.

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