In The Wizard of Oz the Wicked Witch of the West writes "Surrender Dorothy" in the sky. But she can be destroyed by a bucket of water.
Microsoft's problems can't be solved that easily. And their best course at this point is for Bill Gates to retire.
As chief software architect and board chairman, Gates is in the way of what Microsoft must do in order to grow again.
I mean no insult by this. It's simple historical fact. Every businessperson, no matter how brilliant, has one act, one great achievement. Gates' was Windows, and all the politicking and marketing savvy needed to give it control of your PC. (Steve Jobs is the exception that proves the rule. The iPod is simply a reflection of his one true craft, which is consumer electronics marketing.)
But if a company is to survive and become a real institution it must have a second act, another life. And you get that with new leadership. IBM, Microsoft's arch-nemesis, has had three lives over the years with three great leaders:
- Thomas Watson Sr. built the company around the punch card machine.
- Thomas Watson Jr. re-built the company around the computer.
- Lou Gerstner re-built the company again around services.
Most companies, even big companies, fail to pass the torch. That's why companies die. Either the founder's vision remains alive until it takes the company down, or a new vision isn't found, or that new vision proves faulty. All great companies, even the largest ones, are in the end entrepreneurial enterprises, and Gates' vision is past its sell-by date.
Gates is lucky. (The picture is from Newsweek.) I think he realizes this fact. That's why he hired Ray Ozzie. Whether the new vision revolves around a thin client or (better yet) network services for all types of clients, the vision at this point needs to be Ozzie's, and it can't be Ozzie's if Gates is still in the building. With Gates in the building those who oppose Ozzie can simply gather around Gates, use Gates to bring Ozzie down, and fight other rear-guard actions.
Perhaps more important, it's not like Bill Gates doesn't have a life mission anymore. The work he and his wife Melinda are doing on health is vital, and consuming. Dealing with the distribution of a $35 billion fortune (which could grow still larger if Ozzie is given his head) should be a full-time job, and a very fulfilling one.
It's time for Gates to get on with it. Take your name off the door. Make Ozzie CEO. Let Ballmer run for President of the United States if he wants. And if Ozzie fails, then you can come in and try to save the day. Not before.