Bill Gates calls time on career at Microsoft

Bill Gates on Thursday announced his intention to leave his full-time role at Microsoft, drawing the curtain on a controversial business career that more than any other shaped the first half-century of the information age and turned him into the world’s richest man.

Mr Gates, a Harvard drop-out who founded Microsoft along with Paul Allen more than 30 years ago, said he would switch his attention instead to philanthropy, continuing the work on global health and education that has come to absorb his time.

The Microsoft chairman will hand over his responsibility for its software strategy immediately and reduce his involvement in the company progressively during the two-year transition period. He will give up all day-to-day activities by July 2008.

Mr Gates said he hoped to stay as chairman of what is the world’s biggest software company “for the rest of my life”, and that the directors had supported this idea. “I don’t see a time in the future when I won’t be the chairman of the company,” he said.

Though he stepped down as chief executive officer of Microsoft in 2000, at the height of a US government antitrust case against the PC software maker, Mr Gates has continued to hold the title of chief software architect and has been seen inside the company as the main visionary behind its strategy. His intellectually combative style and intense competitiveness have also helped to define the culture of a company whose dominance of the software business came to attract the attention of regulators on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mr Gates, who has long said that he intended to donate the majority of his wealth to charity, said he planned eventually to devote most of his time to the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which he set up with his wife to tackle health and education issues, particularly in the emerging world. The world’s richest charitable foundation, it has assets of $29.1bn.

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, said Mr Gates was “now headed, in my opinion, to become the greatest philanthropist of all time”.

The reshuffle at Microsoft will catapult an outsider into the top technical job. Ray Ozzie, who joined Microsoft last year after the company bought his small software concern, Groove, will take on the title of chief software architect immediately. Mr Ozzie has already been instrumental in spearheading a change in technical direction at Microsoft as it tries to adjust to the internet challenge represented by Google.

Mr Gates said that the reshuffle would not hamper Microsoft, adding: “The world has had a tendency to focus a disproportionate amount of attention on me.” Of his change in direction at the age of 50, he added: “My announcement is not a retirement – it’s a reordering of my priorities.”

Mr Gates, whose 9.55 per cent stake in Microsoft is worth $22.5bn, said he had “no plans” at present to reduce his holding.

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