Life after Gates

Give Microsoft credit. What other company could pull off a stop-the-presses announcement on news that its No. 2 guy was stepping down ... in two years? That's a lifetime in the software industry. Yet with a slew of new Microsoft products and technologies rolling out between 2006 and 2007, the role of that particular No. 2 -- chief software architect Bill Gates -- looms large.

In his press conference, Gates noted that, "With great wealth comes great responsibility," echoing Spider-Man's famous dictum, "With great power comes great responsibility," (and the even earlier 'Noblesse Oblige'). The choice of quote offers a clue as to how Gates sees himself: The vastly misunderstood Peter Parker type (Spider-Man's 'real' name), who just wants to do good but is routinely vilified by the very public he wants so desperately to help.

In some ways, the comparison is apt. Through sheer force of will, Gates has driven much of the software development during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a period of spectacular growth and innovation. But he's gotten more scorn than recognition for his efforts.

Gates seems to have slipped into the background of late, leaving Steve Ballmer as the company's pugnacious public face and tireless cheerleader. But Gates' fingerprints, although subtle, are all over recent Microsoft efforts. The flashy UI touches in the upcoming Vista client don't seem all that Bill-ish. But the underlying architectural changes in Longhorn server, alterations to the WinFX stack (.Net 3.0), and even the revamped structural underpinnings of Active Directory and SharePoint suggest someone deep under the hood, rewiring the guts and tinkering with the motor.

And what of Gates' designated replacement, Ray Ozzie -- the man who brought us Lotus Notes and Groove? Ozzie's body of work suggests that he believes in the power of collaborative software. That is not necessarily the Redmond way.

The catch? Ozzie may be a brilliant, even visionary developer, but he has traditionally favoured big, beefy collaboration platforms - which are so old school.

Can Ray Ozzie adapt? We'll find out in two years.

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