With Ballmer leaving Microsoft, Bill Gates’ reputation has a comeback

Suddenly, there's buzz painting Bill Gates as Microsoft's only possible savior. He stepped down as chief executive in 2000.
(Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)

Well, look who’s suddenly all the fashion. Why, it’s Bill Gates!

The big philanthropist who stepped away from running the company he co-founded is suddenly being labeled a visionary, and there are even some whispers that he and only he can return from the wilderness and restore Microsoft to greatness!

In other words, he’s getting the kind of love from pundits and Silicon Valley he never seemed to get when he was actually in charge of Microsoft.

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The latest to join in the reputation revival exercise is Chief Executive Marc Benioff, who told CNET this week that with CEO Steve Ballmer retiring, Gates is Microsoft’s only possible savior.


“There is no clear candidate with the visionary skills to turn the company around other than Bill Gates,” Benioff told CNET. “He wouldn’t just be a magnet for a new vision, but for a talent pool of leadership.”

For real?

Gates stepped down as Microsoft’s chief executive in 2000 and left day-to-day operations in 2008. He remains chairman of its board. But it’s fair to say his departure from the company did not trigger glowing retrospectives of the type that appeared upon the passing of his rival Steve Jobs.

Primarily, Gates was remembered mostly for being a step behind and then being incredibly savvy and ruthless about playing catch-up.

One of his greatest moves came early in his career when he famously signed a deal to make the operating system for IBM’s PCs and kept ownership of the software. Because IBM thought it was silly to think anyone could make a business out of something like software.

Over the next decade, Gates and Microsoft outmaneuvered Apple by licensing the operating system to PC manufacturers. It became the dominant OS even if critics felt it was not as good as Apple’s.

But by the mid-1990s, Gates seemed to be more often getting tagged with labels like “flat-footed.” Microsoft often seemed behind the latest trend.

Consider, for instance, Gates’ 1995 book “The Road Ahead,” which made only cursory mention of that little thing known as the Internet. New York Times columnist Joseph Nocera chided Gates for lacking much in the way of a compelling vision.

Gates spent several months revising the book for rerelease the following year.

“What does come through, inferentially at least, is the extent to which Microsoft has been built on Mr. Gates’s insights into business rather than into technology,” Nocera wrote in a review. “Though he has the pallid, slightly disheveled appearance of a classic computer nerd, he is nothing of the sort and never has been. He has always been a shrewd and calculating businessman.”

Indeed, Gates had written an internal memo that year that recognized Microsoft had been slow to realize the sea change and needed to rally its force. The missive would become known as the “Internet tidal wave” memo.

“The Internet is a tidal wave,” Gates wrote. “It changes the rules. It is an incredible opportunity as well as incredible challenge. I am looking forward to your input on how we can improve our strategy to continue our track record of incredible success.”

Among Microsoft’s famous tactics was to create an Internet browser to compete against Netscape. But the U.S. Department of Justice and many Silicon Valley competitors felt the company got too aggressive by tying Internet Explorer to the Windows operating system.

The result was a lengthy antitrust case. Although Microsoft managed to ultimately escape severe penalties, the case cemented the company’s and Gates’ reputations less as innovators and more as bullies intent on protecting their kingdom at any cost.

Meanwhile, Microsoft missed the boat on search as a major business. It contracted with another company to provide search results for many years before belatedly building its own search engine.

Google “kicked our butts,” Gates said in 2004. Almost two decades after the “tidal wave” memo, Microsoft’s online service continues to lose money.

Even when Gates seemed to have some foresight, he couldn’t seem to execute it in a compelling way that inspired consumers and the industry to follow up.

In 2001, Gates took the stage at the Comdex trade show to unveil the gadget he was sure represented the future of computing: the tablet!

“Next year a lot of people in the audience will be taking notes with those Tablet PCs,” he predicted.

Nope. It would be almost a decade before Jobs and Apple got the device and the timing right to unleash the tablet revolution.

In an interview with Charlie Rose last year, Gates said of Jobs’ success with the iPad: “He did some things better than I did. His timing in terms of when it came out, the engineering work, just the package that was put together. The tablets we had done before, weren’t as thin, they weren’t as attractive as what came along.”

This is nothing personal against Gates, by the way. He is doing some astonishing work in his post-Microsoft career, focusing on international health and education. Some have said that it’s possible he will one day remembered more for his philanthropic work than for his role in sparking the PC age.

But in the meantime, there seems to be a little bit of wishful thinking and rewriting of history going on. At the moment, Gates seems to be showing no interest in returning to the Microsoft helm.

Whatever issues the company has, though, they aren’t likely to be solved by the myth-making that the tech industry loves to practice.


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