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Interviewing Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s ebullient chief executive, some years ago, I asked whether he and the company’s founder, Bill Gates, were losing their appetite for the battle.
With characteristic arm- waving, eye-rolling and table-thumping, he indicated that both were as “up for it” as ever and would be for at least 10 years: “We don’t work as hard as we used to but we still work very hard and we love it,” he said.
Now, a few years on from Ballmer’s estimate, Gates has broken that solidarity at the top, choosing to remain chairman while planning to withdraw from day-to-day management in 2008.
He intends, he says, to concentrate on the charitable activities for which he and his wife Melinda have been rightly praised and which certainly have the potential to do a great deal of good in the world’s poorest countries.
But it is an open question whether his decision does not also reflect a measure of disenchantment with the state of the information technology world today and the company’s position in it. Microsoft, after all, faces more competition and potential competition than it has for many years.
It is still embroiled in legal arguments with the EU over alleged antitrust activities. And, like a lightning rod, Gates seems personally to attract the often savage criticisms directed at a company whose aggressive marketing methods are legendary. Whether he has become disillusioned with the battle is a matter for him alone. But his impending departure raises the question of the effect on Microsoft of the loss of a leader who, more than any other individual, has been identified with the way people use personal computers.
Gates’ role is “chief software architect”, a role to be taken by Ray Ozzie after Gates’s departure. Ozzie is the software developer with the Lotus Notes e-mail program to his credit and his move into the top technical job may unleash a flood of creativity inside Microsoft that has been held back by what, to an outsider, looks like Gates’ curiously old-fashioned approach to computer technology.
Microsoft, in fact, seems to be a company that moves forward remorselessly on the business front, driven by its ownership of the ubiquitous Windows operating system, but suffers continuous technological set-backs from which it has to recover by paddling furiously.
It was, for example, slow to spot the emergence of client-server computing, a development the German software house SAP was able to exploit to the full to become a leader in enterprise resource planning software with R/3. Microsoft, meanwhile, has struggled to establish a presence in the data centre as opposed to on the desktop.
It was late to understand the importance of the internet and its subsequent efforts to establish its browser, messaging services and media player as office standards brought it into conflict with the anti-trust authorities. Even though Gates, by a tremendous effort of will, managed to turn the company on to the internet on a sixpence, as it were, it is still struggling to come to terms with Web 2.0, the latest iteration of web activity.
It now faces perhaps its greatest threat from Google, developing outwards from search, which it dominates, into areas Microsoft might legitimately consider its own.
And in a supreme display of 1970s ubergeekery, Microsoft missed the importance of the graphical user interface. Pioneered at Xerox in the 1960s and 1970s and popularised by Apple in the 1980s it took Microsoft several iterations to develop a saleable version and even now Windows hardly holds a candle to Apple’s OSX.
Finally, Microsoft understood only belatedly the poor state of Windows’ security after hacking attack after hacking attack broke through its defences and caused a string of high-profile and highly embarrassing incidents for customers worldwide. The resultant patching of existing versions of Windows and the forced re-writing of the code for the next version, Vista, have caused serious delays and allowed customers to think seriously about Open Source software as an alternative.
How can it be, one could ask, that a company with the brightest software minds could have been caught on the backfoot so many times?
Now it may be ridiculous to attach too much importance to the influence of a single individual in a company as large and diverse as Microsoft, but it does seem to me the company often seems to be caught in a 1970s timewarp because Gates is psychologically attuned to the personal computing of that era: that means individual machines each running their own operating system and without much in the way of communications.
And you would not expect too much security in those innocent times: after all, what sort of evil-minded person would attempt purposely to damage a computer or cause it to fail? Furthermore, the Microsoft approach to solving software problems – throwing bodies at it – is reminiscent of the way IBM handled bugs and glitches in the 1970s and 1980s
Without Gates, Microsoft may be free to move forward. It has thousands of bright programmers and some of the best laboratories in the world – for example in Cambridge, Beijing and Bangalore. If they are given their heads, there could result an explosion of software that will move the company into a new era.
And without Gates as its public face, the company might seem a more benign, if still mighty, organisation with which to deal – for customers, competitors and collaborators.