After Bill Gates, five possible futures for Microsoft

Bill Gates' impending retirement comes at a major crossroads for the company. We sketch out five paths the software giant may take

For most people, Bill Gates and Microsoft are one and the same. Gates has led Microsoft to global dominance in the 33 years since its founding, combining a strong opportunism -- getting the code for DOS to sell to IBM for the first PC and aping Apple's visual interface for the first Windows are the two best examples of Gates' moving where the wind was soon to blow -- with a steady vision of desktop computers being as powerful as the mainframes that captured techies' imaginations in the 1970s.

June 30 is Gates' last day as a Microsoft employee, though no doubt he'll continue to advise the company. Taking Gates' place is his longtime buddy and aggressive salesman, Steve Ballmer. In its 33 years, Microsoft has extended its quest to turn every PC into a mainframe and to make Windows the center of the information and technology worlds. It's come close, but there are strong signs that the Microsoft era, at least in the Gates mold, may be ending. And it's far from clear that there is a leader to take Gates' place at this critical time.

The Gates legacy

Calling Gates a visionary is misleading. His success has come from determination and identifying the right time to jump into already-brewing big ideas. Remember that Microsoft ignored the graphical user interface of Apple and then GEM for nearly a decade. It disregarded the Internet for several years. In both cases, Microsoft's adoption came just as the technologies became massively popular. In both cases, there was some degree of chicken-and-egg going on: Microsoft's adoption made it safe for users, but had Microsoft delayed any further, those same users may have gone elsewhere.

In the cases of the GUI and Internet, Gates was criticized for waiting too long. Yet it was Gates who pushed the first version of Excel -- on a Mac -- and several years before Windows previewed what the broader business computing world would look like. So it's clear that the idea of the GUI had been on his mind long before Windows 3.

Microsoft gets teased as being a Borg-like entity, after the Star Trek villains that assimilate other cultures and turn them into mindless drones. That's unfair, but Microsoft is good at appropriating technologies when they start passing the point of nascency and are ready for broad exploitation. Gates' strength has been to push, push, push into these areas.

It's no joke that the third version of a Microsoft product is the one you should actually adopt, given that taking those "at the cusp" technologies and making them work for the masses is no mean trick. Apple's Steve Jobs can usually pull it off (but not always -- he's had some spectacular failures along the way, as has Apple itself), but he's the exception that proves the rule. And besides, Apple is very good at pushing niche technologies, carefully controlling their scope so that they don't have an unlimited universe of possibilities to handle. Microsoft, by contrast, tries to do everything for everybody -- an impossible effort -- and so falls short for at least some.

Does Microsoft have a grand plan?

So what does that all mean for Microsoft after Gates? Plenty. Whether you think Gates is a technology leader or simply a fast-exploiting follower, he'll be gone very soon. And there's no clear driver at Microsoft. Ballmer is no technology guy; analysts and longtime technologists privately say he's just a salesman, hawking whatever there is to sell. Microsoft's official visionary, Ray Ozzie, is long on imagination but short on execution. Years of poetic memos on collaboration and Web 2.0 haven't amounted to anything substantive.

Even in Gates' waning years, Microsoft seems to have lost a cohesive outline for its future, allowing the debacle that is Windows and the bizarre interface changes in Office and Internet Explorer to come to market. Yet this same company has produced a great server operating system (Windows Server 2008) and sharing server (SharePoint 2007), and shows promising work in its touch-interface technology (Microsoft Surface), in addition to well-regarded midmarket business apps (Microsoft Dynamics) with a world-class user interface. It's clear that there are actually multiple Microsofts with their own visions and execution strengths.

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