When I think of Bill Gates, I can't help but think back to that famous photo taken of his team shortly before they moved up to Washington State from Albuquerque. This rag-tag band somehow served as the base for a company that now employs 75,000+ people (including myself, until recently) and is the company that occupies so much of the thinking time of journalists and bloggers who write anything related to the market for software.
How did that team create a company that made Bill Gates, at one point, richer than the combined GDPs of all of Central America (less in 2008 dollars)?
I don't think you can plan to be that successful. Granted, you can do things that put yourself on one of the tracks in the success-related train station. But as an entrepreneur, all you can do is make your products and pursue every opportunity vigorously in hopes that you are well positioned when fortune comes screeching through the intersection, changing your life forever (not that great success is akin to getting flattened by trains).
There is a healthy bit of luck in the story of Bill Gates. You couldn't have planned for the folks behind CP/M to act like complete idiots when IBM came looking for an operating system for their new desktop computer (they thought they were big fish before the term "big fish" had any kind of meaning in software markets). You couldn't plan that Apple would persist in keeping their operating system exclusive to their own hardware, thus depriving them of the energy that flowed through a Windows platform that harnessed the creative energies of OEMs and third-party software companies (an energy into which Apple has now partially plugged itself with its shift to Intel-based platforms).
Fortune ran Bill Gates way, and he was prepared to take advantage of it when it did.
Bill Gates isn't completely retiring. He claims he will devote a day a week to Microsoft-related business. However, he is not going to be the ideological force at the company he once was.
That's why I think it is important for everyone at Microsoft to understand that ideological legacy. Bill Gates built a company that viewed software as the pivot point in computers. Hardware is important, but it is software that smooths over cross-device ideosyncracies, along the way creating a common layer upon which third parties can build products. That created a huge market unified around a common platform that made Microsoft the massive company that it is today.
Microsoft departs from that legacy at its own peril. I said recently that Microsoft's future should be more Scott Guthrie than J Allard. What I meant by that (and explained to someone in the Talkbacks who had no idea what I was talking about) was that Microsoft should be more influenced by Scott Guthrie, Corporate Vice President of the .NET Developer Division, than J. Allard, Corporate Vice President of Design and Development in Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices Division.
That isn't meant to downplay the critical role that J. Allard plays in the company. To my mind, however, any piece of hardware Microsoft makes should be designed with an eye towards guiding the platform and licensees in useful directions. The only way to learn how to make a platform support well-designed hardware is to know what well-designed hardware looks like (and learn how to make it). As a platform company, however, Microsoft should always ensure that the software that runs on Microsoft hardware should be made available to all third parties (in other words, no Zune-specific DRM). Universal compatibility takes primacy of place at platform companies.
Microsoft is not Apple, nor should it try to become Apple. Microsoft is a platform company.
That is the legacy of Bill Gates.
Modifications to the core recipe make sense in 2008. As I've noted elsewhere, closed protocols make little sense in a software universe that today threads every aspect of most people's lives. That, however, isn't a modification of the central theme, that software - not hardware - is the pivot point in computer markets. It just means that software has to seamlessly interoperate with a lot more software not made by the same company (or running on its platforms), and that can only occur if the software conforms to well-understood and documented protocols.
The core theme guiding the development of the company from its early years is still a solid one. I just hope enough people at Microsoft appreciate that legacy so that it continues to inform Microsoft strategy for the foreseeable future.