Microsoft does not need a Bill Gates redux, it needs an outside perspective

Microsoft does not need a Bill Gates redux, it needs an outside perspective

Summary: The return of Bill Gates as CEO would not solve Microsoft’s problems. ZDNet’s Monday Morning Opener explains why and what the company needs instead.

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Bill Gates' passion for computing played in an indelible role in the development of the technology industry, and it will long be remembered. But, if you look at his disastrous final years at Microsoft before retiring, it's clear that he's not the leader Microsoft needs to find a way forward in the 21st century. The company needs an outside perspective.

There's a good reason why journalists and historians rely on primary documents and multiple sources in order to discover the truth about events. It's because the way people remember things is tied much more to their current priorities than an accurate account of the way things happened.

The technology industry's collective memory about Gates is flawed. Again, that's not to minimize his contributions in popularizing and commoditizing computers for the masses in the 1970s through the 1990s. However, don't forget that it was Gates who drove bad product decisions that caused Microsoft to squander its place in the tablet and smartphone markets. It was Gates who badly overestimated the progress and demand for voice recognition and pen computing. And, above all, it was Gates who blindly led Microsoft into the biggest product disaster in its history with Windows Vista.

By the time he retired from Microsoft in July 2008 to devote his time to philanthropy, it was clear that Gates no longer had his finger on the pulse of the technology industry or the customers that Microsoft needed to serve. The industry had moved past his vision.

There's no shame in that. He did important work that helped create the computer industry and now he's off doing even more important work with at-risk people across the globe to improve their health care and education via the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

For those in the tech industry calling for Gates to return to Microsoft, it's time to accept that he was smart enough to know when he needed to move on and do something different.

Today's Microsoft is not the Windows and Office juggernaut that Gates led to almost universal ubiquity in the 1990s. Microsoft has a much broader portfolio of consumer and enterprise businesses and is fighting much fiercer battles in every one of the 16 markets where it now runs billion dollar businesses.

The future of Microsoft is primarily as a cloud services company (both public and private cloud). That's where all of the company's growth and revenue are centered today and in the years ahead. It needs a leader who can navigate those waters while also finding capable product leaders to energize the company's high profile consumer businesses—which help build the overall brand even if they aren't massively profitable.

While we're likely to keep hearing the names of Stephen Elop, Sheryl Sandberg, and others thrown around as potentially CEO replacements for the retiring Steve Ballmer, what Microsoft needs is a leader more like former Microsoft and Vmware executive Paul Maritz, CEO of Pivotal.

Maritz is the enterprise executive who kept Vmware executing during an amazing period from 2008-2012 when it looked like Microsoft HyperV and Citrix XenServer had Vmware surrounded and would steal the virtualization market from the incumbent. Instead, demand for virtualization soared and under Maritz's leadership Vmware inexplicably maintained its market share, stayed a step ahead of its competitors in product innovation, and grew revenue year after year after year. 

Since he's now working on a bleeding edge skunkworks project at Pivotal, Maritz may not be interested in the gargantuan task of re-energizing Microsoft. But, that's the kind of leader Microsoft should be looking for. 

Another example would be Bob Muglia, the former Microsoft server chief who is now running the software division at Juniper Networks. Both Maritz and Muglia are Microsoft veterans who understand the internal workings of the company and its competing priorities, but they've both stepped away and worked at well-run tech companies and have gotten a larger perspective of where the industry is moving. Those dual perspectives would be invaluable for Microsoft's next CEO.

Having Bill Gates continue to focus his attention on global vaccines and improving education is better for the world, and it would be better for Microsoft.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00AM in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00PM Eastern Time on Sunday in the U.S. It is written by a member of ZDNet's Global Editorial Board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States.

Related research on Microsoft

The following related research pieces are from Tech Pro Research, a joint venture between ZDNet and TechRepublic that includes exclusive in-depth features from Mary Jo Foley, Ed Bott, Larry Dignan, Jason Hiner, Bill Detwiler, and more.

Topics: Microsoft, Leadership

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  • I think I know the person

    I have a friend, that is someone who can change , but MS execs would have to listen and the staff would have to follow through. This guy likes to remain behind the scenes, but his input could change the face of MS and the world we live in.
    • While I appreciate the kind words,

      I'll have to pass for now...Oh, you weren't talking about me? Hehe...couldn't let that opportunity pass though!
      • you want to be next Microsoft CEO?

        Why would any sane persons want that?
        • I said I would have to pass...

          or did you not read that part? Some people may be attracted to the salary and benefits that typically come with CEO and similar positions...or are you saying those that aspire to these positions in a company are not sane? Maybe, maybe not. As for myself personally, I'm not interested. Just having a bit of fun on a holiday weekend (in the US). Besides, I'm a bit tired, been busy getting other things done this weekend, hopefully I'll get some time to relax, but doubtful. Probably do some paperwork tomorrow (I own my own business) to finish out August.
          Hmmm, come to think of it, some people think I'm crazy, so maybe I am qualified??? Maybe I should send my resume, shucks, Apple could use some help too, might send it to them as well!
          • Ask not what the company can do for you...

            "Some people may be attracted to the salary and benefits that typically come with CEO and similar positions..."

            Do you think that MS needs a CEO like that? I thought that what MS needs right now is a CEO with actual vision.
          • Did I say they needed a CEO like that?

            Name me one CEO of a major mulit-billion dollar corporation that doesn't have a rather substantial salary, excellent benefit package. Tim Cook of Apple? Marisa Mayer from Yahoo? Anyone?
            It's easy to throw around buzz words like "vision" and motivator...but with those qualities, there is normally a price. That's the way it is.
        • Maybe you missed this part...

          "16 markets where it...runs billion dollar businesses" Yeah - sounds like a real lame duck to me too.


          I know you don't like it, but MS is still huge, hugely successful and hugely influential. Do you really think there aren't already a lot of high-talent people practically salivating at the opportunity? Oops - you've already answered the question of "do you really think".
    • For the record neither maritz nor muglia would be

      a good successor for Ballmer. Yes VMware inexplicably retained market share but not because they stayed ahead on innovation. Mostly because people who adopted it were too dumb to make another change. Very akin to how lots of people still ignore reality and think sticking with Oracle isn't stupid. And Muglia less than Maritz. And also for the record neither MS nor any of their competitors nor the industry collectively have reached gates vision, let alone passed it. The fact is there isn't any current or former softie who makes a good candidate. Not nadella or chi or Guthrie or elop. Guthrie is absolutely great from the tech side but it would be a disaster to divert his attention to the business running. Maybe some joint combo of turner and Guthrie would work out. This will not be an easy thing for me to do.
      Johnny Vegas
      • Re: ignore reality and think sticking with Oracle isn't stupid

        Replace Oracle with Microsoft in that sentence and you will have a hit. Or, any other company around.

        It is stupid to stick to anything because of it, not because you need the thing to make you more productive than your competitors or save known costs.
        • Replace you id, "danbi", with "stupid", and you will have a hit.

          You have to be stupid to believe that anybody would give anything you have to say any kind of credibility.

          The whole purpose for your life is to make anti-Microsoft comments, no matter who is at their leadership positions.
  • It Needs A Total Excision Of Its Current Poisonous Corporate Culture

    Incumbent empires sabotaging new ideas, stifling bureaucracy, and the infamous "stack ranking":
    • Ballmer has already gone a long way to doing that.

      He fired Steven Sinofsky who was notorious for being a pain in the ass and not working with other divisions, and the reorganization was made to break down silos and have divisions in Microsoft working more closeles with one another.
      • Re: Ballmer has already gone a long way to doing that.

        Is that why he was booted out--to stop him finishing the job?

        See--more sabotage...
  • Gates got it wrong more times than Ballmer

    Gates on the iPad (2010):

    You know, I'm a big believer in touch and digital reading, but I still think that some mixture of voice, the pen, and a real keyboard -- in other words, a Netbook -- will be the mainstream on that."

    Gates recently thought iPad users were frustrated for the lack of keyboard (countless keyboard assesory options) and for the lack of Office documents (iWord and many other doc apps since introduction).

    "With Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to gain market share in what has been dominated by the iPad-type device. But a lot of those users are frustrated. They can't type. They can't create documents," Said Gates.
    • Partly true

      He got that right "to a small extent". Tablets really are frustrating to 'try to' work on because they are underpowered, screens are too small and they're totally useless to type on via touch. The the undersized keyboards for iPads are for kids as far as I'm concerned (I have very large hands).

      iPads, however, and this is where he got it wrong, are for play, not work. For play they are absolutely brilliant and don't even need a proper keyboard.
      • Depends on the type of "work" on does with their tablets

        A real estate agent using his/her iPad in the field is also "work". A doctor, dentist, stock broker, a retail sales person using their iPads to check customers out on the spot. All work, no play.

        That's the problem with Gates, Ballmer and the rest of these CEOs of major corporations (HP, Dell). They don't know how to think outside that box they put themselves in. Gates had the idea for tablets in 2000/2001 put couldn't see how it would sell without it being tied to Windows bloat. Or tied to a keyboard. They couldn't see the NEW use cases for such a device not tied to a PC OS. Even after the iPad was released and selling like hotcakes, Gates still were stuck on Netbooks as being the future of mobile computing over tablet devices. Boy was he wrong.
        • dave95: "Gates still were stuck on Netbooks as being the future of mobile"

          And Microsoft was blindsided by GNU/Linux-based netbooks. Windows XP Home had to be brought out of retirement for netbooks because Windows Vista was too bloated for the task. [Windows Vista was also too bloated for some of the low-end laptops and desktops that OEMs foolishly installed it on.] Only with Windows 7 was Microsoft finally able to put a modern version of Windows on netbooks.

          You see? Microsoft missed netbooks too. However, it was able to react sufficiently fast to keep GNU/Linux from finding a niche in the market. And then Apple, with both the MacBook Air and iPad, knocked netbooks out of the ballpark.
          Rabid Howler Monkey
        • Before it's time.

          MS tablet attempts came at a time when the required components cost a fortune. Apple released the right product at the right time, matching the industry that was creating these required components. You make it sound like MS should have released an "iPad" in 2001, but that would have been impossible. Those same industries that you quote above were the very industries that used XP based tablet PC's when back then. Maybe you should read up a bit
      • It's the software, stupid

        Any computer, is just as useful as the software that runs on it. Doesn't matter what fancy peripherals the computer has, if the software does not improve productivity, the computer has lower value.

        Now, you Microsoft fanboys for some reason believe Microsoft Office is the most productive office suite software out there. You could not be more wrong.

        With the proper software, an tablet without a keyboard etc may be more productive than a device with the best keyboard ever, for the tasks where appropriate software has been written. For example (from my experience), AutoCAD. Everyone will agree that the iOS version of AutoCAD is not as full featured and "powerful" as the desktop version that runs on Windows and OS X, but, it has unique qualities, when running on the iPad that you can leverage the tablet-specific sensors, for example GPS and cellular connectivity to do things, that the desktop version simply is not equipped to do. Or, if you could instrument the desktop version to do all these things, it will be both extremely expensive and very awkward to work with. Or the growing number of process control applications that simply do not have sane desktop equivalent.

        At the time you need keyboard or mouse with a tablet, you know you picked up the wrong device.
        • Let me fix that for you...

          "Any time you have the option to choose the input method that best fits the type of work you are doing, you know you picked the right device. And if those options are inherent to the design, so much the better."

          Yeah - that sounds about right.