Why Gates Handed Over the Reins

Thursday, Bill Gates announced that he would transfer the title of Microsoft Corp. CEO from himself to the company president, Steve Ballmer. Gates, who will remain chairman of the company, will now also hold the new title of "chief software architect."

Following the announcement, Salon.com organized a comic Top 10 list: Why Bill Gates Stepped Down. (Reason No. 2: "Needed more time to learn Linux.") Such a list is an apt format through which to comment on the movements of a man whose wealth has turned him into a pop-culture icon. Salon's spoofy catalog wasn't always funny, but it offered an antidote to the hyperscrutiny with which the media has followed the company's movements - past and present - since the start of the antitrust trial.

Following Salon's lead, then, Grok offers a Top Four list of explanations for Gates' move, as reported by the media.

No. 4: To return "to what I love most, focusing on the future."

Bill's explanation was good enough for SF Gate, which ran an AP account that did not even mention the company's recent troubles.

No. 3: "[Microsoft has] some new brainchild that (Gates) wants to focus on. He thinks it's so big and important that he basically doesn't have time to run the business anymore."

This trust-of-a-child explanation came courtesy of Seybold analyst Anne Thomas Manes, cited in a News.com account that was otherwise, thankfully, more skeptical.

No. 2: He handed over the reins so the DoJ could use them to whip a different boy.

Many reporters referred to Microsoft's antitrust troubles, but the Wall Street Journal's David Bank leaned hardest on legal fatigue as an explanation for Gates' abdication. DoJ lawyers "at times succeeded in demonizing Mr. Gates," wrote Banks. "And, at times, Mr. Gates appeared to take the government action personally." Banks brought back this theory from an executive at one of the startups funded by Microsoft: "I think they are trying to create a broader persona for Microsoft that is not just Bill, and that kind of makes it a little less personal."

No. 1: Better to have the company symbolically beheaded than to see it drawn-and-thirded by Justice.

This is Grok's own theory. As the Journal pointed out, Gates has become identified with Microsoft-the-monopoly. Therefore, getting Gates out of the legal spotlight not only helps him personally, but also increases Microsoft's chances to reach a settlement with the government. Microsoft's new CEO may be "defiant," as MSNBC crowed yesterday, but Ballmer's thunderings won't be met with the ad hominem resistance that Gates seems to inspire.

This is a smart time for Microsoft to fake an injury. As plenty of outlets noted, this week's announcement of an AOL-Time Warner merger has skewed the old antitrust question of how big is too big. Meanwhile, Microsoft is missing no opportunities to emphasize the level of competition it faces. In fact, the N.Y.

Times observed, Ballmer used Thursday's press conference to emphasize Microsoft's need to reorganize to keep pace with its powerful competitors.

(Didya catch that last word, Washington?) Don't leave your seats, folks. We assure you, this is only intermission.

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