Charles Cooper: Gates bows out but the beat goes on

Ballmer has been effectively running the show for nearly a year, orchestrating subtle changes to put more focus on customers

He was the greatest combination of technologist, business-entrepreneur and cold-blooded killer the computer industry has ever seen. And most likely will ever see.

On an otherwise slow Thursday afternoon -- at the time, the top story on the wires was a report that researchers had cloned a monkey by splitting an embryo -- Bill Gates officially stepped aside and anointed Steve Ballmer as CEO of Microsoft.

By any measure, it was an extraordinary passing of the baton. But the import of the news is likely to be more symbolic than substantive: the real transfer of power at Microsoft occurred nearly a year ago when he was elevated to president.

Ballmer has been effectively running the show ever since, orchestrating subtle changes to put more focus on customers instead of around specific products. To be sure, the burly Ballmer is the more in-your-face executive (remember his "the heck with Janet Reno" quote?), but don't expect radical deviation from the course laid down by Gates.

On the legal front, Microsoft will continue to be as adamant as ever about its antitrust dispute with the government. Every bit the true believer as his old college buddy, Ballmer told reporters Thursday it would be "absolutely reckless and irresponsible for anyone to try and break up this company." The words couldn't have been any better scripted by Gates, who was smiling and nodding quiet agreement behind him.

I think the more interesting question is the timing of Gates' decision to bow out now, just as renewed rumours about a possible breakup of the company swirl through the industry. More Machiavellian minds might suggest that the occasion was not coincidental. What with the presiding judge in its antitrust lawsuit poised to throw the book at the company, might not Microsoft be taking proactive steps to free up Gates to run one of the prospective "Baby Bills" in the event the courts order Microsoft split into three smaller entities?

It makes for a good plot, but I think there's less here than meets the eye. After a quarter century fighting the good fight, Gates might be excused for wanting to try to burnish his fading legacy as tech visionary. After all, he was late on Java and similarly missed the boat on Linux. And now, with the threat of an uber-America Online on the horizon, it's time to hunker down and make sure Microsoft doesn't blow the Next Big Thing -- whatever that will be.

Perhaps it's no surprise to learn that Gates plans to keep his fingers in the pie as Microsoft's "chief software architect." That is a polite synonym for being the mother of all busybodies. "Every meeting I've had with Bill in the last six months has been product based," one senior manager told me on background. "That's the way things have been operating."

Indeed, the respite from day to day should also afford Gates' handlers much needed time to complete their boss' PR makeover from rapacious tycoon to loveable Uncle Buck. Like a latter-day John D. Rockefeller dispensing dimes to the common people, get ready to see portrayals of the kinder, gentler Bill Gates that the computer industry never knew.

Gates Steps Aside: For full coverage see the News Roundup

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