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

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.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief
Image: CBS

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.

Editorial standards