Curtain Closing on Gates Era at Microsoft: IT managers say transition plan has benefits, pitfalls

After Microsoft Corp. said last week that Bill Gates will step away from a day-to-day role at the company over the next two years, users lauded his contributions to Microsoft and the IT industry. But many said they think the change could be positive for Microsoft as it maneuvers to fend off competition from Google Inc., Linux vendors and other emerging rivals.

For example, Christopher Wanko, a lead systems analyst at Schering-Plough Corp. in Kenilworth, N.J., described the transition plan as "absolutely good news" for Microsoft. It comes "at a time when the old school needs to become a hallowed memory, and new ideas and perspectives should come to the fore," Wanko said.

Gates is "a brilliant strategic thinker [who] revolutionized the industry," said John Halamka, CIO at CareGroup Healthcare System and Harvard Medical School in Boston. "However, it's clear that Microsoft has not competed well with market innovations from Google, Linux and the next generation of thin, Web-based applications."

The software vendor "needs to transform itself, and new leaders in day-to-day operations may create opportunities for radical change," he added.

Ann Harten, vice president of global information systems at office furniture maker Haworth Inc. in Holland, Mich., noted that "a new perspective, with Bill's ongoing guidance, might be a refreshing approach" for Microsoft -- particularly if the company's focus shifts to "accurate and usable [product] delivery."

End of an Era

Not everyone among the 25 users contacted by Computerworld last week was so upbeat about Gates' plan to relinquish his role as Microsoft's chief software architect. The duties now performed by Gates will be split between Ray Ozzie and Craig Mundie, who both previously held chief technical officer jobs at the company.

Dan Agronow, chief technology officer at The Weather Channel Interactive Inc. in Atlanta, lamented the announcement as "the end of an era."

Gates is "the individual that's the embodiment of Microsoft," Agronow said. "When you think of Microsoft, you think of Bill. I think now Microsoft will be viewed more as a corporate, faceless entity, similar to IBM. I don't see that as good or bad; it's more sad."

However, Agronow predicted that the changes will likely make Microsoft even slower to respond to competitive threats. "I don't see them having the single strong personality that could turn the ship when needed, like when they finally recognized the threat of Netscape," he said.

Gates "is the heart and soul of that company, so I have to believe that his departure would make it something less than it was before," said Chris Hubbell, a software systems engineer at Westar Energy Inc. in Topeka, Kan. The planned transition "makes Microsoft a little less imposing" and potentially more vulnerable to competition, Hubbell said.

"Microsoft is so much Bill Gates in terms of corporate personality," said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group in San Jose. But Enderle noted that Ozzie was hired last year, when he sold Groove Networks to Microsoft, with the intent that he eventually would step into Gates' role as chief software architect. Gates likely judged that Ozzie had performed to his satisfaction and that "it was a matter of pulling the trigger and letting it happen," Enderle said.

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