Ballmer should follow Gates out of Microsoft

Now we know we're losing Microsoft's organ grinder, it's time for the monkey to step aside too

It's the beginning of the end of the Bill Gates era. As you've probably read, seen and heard already today, Microsoft's chairman will take a back seat in 2008 and devote more of his talents to his charitable foundation.

Tellingly, the move had been warmly welcomed by those within Microsoft, who have long complained that its higher management are detached from the real problems facing the company. There's also plenty of speculation over the timing of the move — is this the rodent packing its bags in the face of indifference over Vista, never-ending antitrust battles, a flaccid share price and a failure to break into enough new markets?

There's no argument that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a well-intentioned operation (despite doubts over whether throwing billions of dollars at global health problems will necessarily work). Gates himself has certainly got the business acumen, focus and commitment to make a very substantial contribution through it.

But by deciding to wind down his role as Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates is turning up the heat under chief executive and long-time intimate Steve Ballmer.

Microsoft is in desperate need of a change of strategy, both on a technical and corporate level. Promoting Ray Ozzie to chief software architect is a good start -- he understands the intricacies of today's world of Web-based services as well as Gates himself grasped the desktop market of the 1980s and early 1990s.

But Microsoft's business approach also needs dragging into the 21st Century. The company is reviled in many quarters for its practices in the past, and arguably it doesn't deserve such opprobrium. But thanks to his infamous Monkey Boy dance and tales of chair-tossing, quite apart from his involvement in the business practices that saw Microsoft hauled before the courts in Europe and America, Steve Ballmer is the living, breathing, crazy-dancing embodiment of Microsoft today.

Microsoft can start over. It can establish closer ties with the industry, and win hearts and minds again. But not unless it can find itself a chief executive who is diplomatic and trusted. A consensus-builder who other people are happy to do business with. It's time for Monkey Boy to step down.