Timeline: The Gates era at Microsoft

A look back at key developments during Bill Gates' 33-year tenure at the software vendor

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1996: The so-called browser wars ensue between Microsoft and Netscape Communications Corp. Netscape was by far the market leader when IE made its debut, but by the end of 1998, Microsoft had taken over the top spot, thanks to its bundling of IE with Windows. That practice would have some legal consequences, though...

1998: The U.S. Department of Justice and 20 states file an antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, alleging that the company had abused its monopoly power in the operating system and Web browser markets — in particular, by bundling IE with Windows. In late 2001, the DOJ and Microsoft reached a settlement that imposed restrictions on the company's business practices but didn't require more onerous steps, such as unbundling the browser from the operating system. The case, which remains open for tracking Microsoft's compliance with the consent decree, also spawned a slew of other legal actions, including class-action lawsuits in numerous states; private antitrust suits against Microsoft by vendors including Sun Microsystems Inc. and Novell Inc.; and investigations of the software vendor by antitrust regulators in various countries.

2000: Microsoft details its .Net strategy for developing Web services that can be shared between different applications. Meanwhile, Gates passes the CEO baton to Steve Ballmer and becomes chief software architect, while continuing as chairman. Also, Gates and his wife, Melinda, found the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which becomes the world's largest charitable foundation thanks to donations from Gates and, later, Buffett.

2002: With Microsoft being pilloried for security flaws in its products, Gates issues an internal memo announcing a new initiative dubbed Trustworthy Computing. Among the steps he orders: shutting down Windows development for 10 weeks to train software engineers on how to write more-secure code. The company also delays the release of Windows Server 2003 for about a year in order to do more security checks on the operating system.

2004: Following a five-year antitrust investigation, the European Commission fines Microsoft 497 million euros (at the time, $613 million) and orders it to offer a version of Windows without its own media player software. Microsoft appealed the ruling in 2006, but the decision was upheld by a European court last year. This February, the EC fined Microsoft another 899 million euros (or $1.3 billion), triggering another appeal by the company.

Gates and Ballmer

Gates and Steve Ballmer at the 2006 press conference where Gates' retirement plans were announced. 

2005: Gates announces a plan to offer more of Microsoft's software functionality over the Internet, via online services dubbed Windows Live and Office Live. The Web-based offerings, which Microsoft begins launching in early 2006, are the centerpieces of the company's effort to take on software-as-a-service vendors. But Microsoft's strategy, called Software+Services, is a hybrid approach designed to protect its Windows and Office franchises — not a full SaaS initiative.

2006: Microsoft announces that Gates will retire from his day-to-day job at the company at the end of June 2008 to devote more time to his philanthropic work, although he will continue as the software vendor's chairman. Gates downplays his role in product development during his time as chief software architect. "Any view that the innovation [at Microsoft] comes primarily from me reflects the notion that there has been an overfocus on my contribution," he says.

Gates, Guitar Hero
Gates at the CES in January, ready for Guitar Hero action (and perhaps wearing the same sweater as he was in the 2006 photo). 

2007: Windows Vista and Office 2007 are released to consumers, after being made available to enterprise users in late 2006. While Microsoft claims otherwise, Vista increasingly is seen as a loser for the company, and the software giant already is talking up its replacement, known for now as Windows 7.

2008: Microsoft tries but fails to buy Yahoo Inc. to help it counter online competition from Google Inc. The takeover bid leads Yahoo to sign an online advertising deal with Google that Microsoft is expected to try to block. Meanwhile, Gates embarks on something of a farewell tour, giving his final keynote speeches as a Microsoft employee at events such as the 2008 International CES trade show and Microsoft's Tech-Ed conference for developers.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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