[As ever, this is on the BBC News website]
The news that Bill Gates is giving up his role as Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect was the second item on Radio 4’s Today programme on the morning it was announced.
While Gates will stay at Microsoft for the next two years, and even then will work part-time and remain the major shareholder in the company he founded, the announcement marks the end of an era.
Announcing the move two years in advance gives shareholders and partners time to adapt to the new, post-Gates Microsoft, but of course his direct influence on the day to day direction of of the company had already diminished greatly since he handed over the CEO role to Steve Ballmer.
While in some senses nothing will change, it’s hard not so see this as a marker of a wider generational shift in the computing world. The old lions like Gates, Larry Ellison at Oracle and Bill Joy at Sun are reaching the end of their time at the head of the pack, and new people are taking over.
Still, the prominence given to the announcement is perhaps the greatest testament to Microsoft’s success.
Gates, before anyone else, realised that the commodification of computer hardware and the continuing application of Moore’s Law made it possible to aim to have a computer in every office, on every desk and in every office.
He drove Microsoft towards that goal by creating a software industry for personal computers that more closely resembled the publishing industry than the old-style computing world where operating systems and applications were sold as part of a hardware deal.
He ruthlessly undermined the competition, buying those rivals he could, competing – sometimes outside the law – with those who could not be bought, and being willing to make mistakes, learn from them and come back again.
The mobile phone I currently use runs Windows Mobile version 5. The first Windows smartphones were universally derided, and I only know one person who ever bought one, Simon the fanatical early adopter.
Windows-based television settop boxes were a failure ten years ago but now IPTV is making inroads all over the cable industry.
And of course Microsoft Office is still the leading tool for creating and managing documents, presentations, databases and spreadsheets. Even the best open source projects, like OpenOffice, are just attempts to replicate the functions and appearance of Office, showing little real innovation.
While Microsoft is struggling to cope in the networked world it helped to create, and the continuing delays to Windows Vista and regular stream of security alerts about their current products have damaged the company’s image, we should not assume that their time has passed.
For one thing Google has not really delivered on its promised Web-based alternatives to Microsoft’s office tools, and few of the Web 2.0 startups show signs of being able to challenge the beast of Redmond.
And Microsoft, like few other companies in history, has shown a willingness to embrace change and shift direction, not only when they famously embraced the Internet and abandoned their attempt to build a closed, proprietary Microsoft Network.
Recent moves to defuse the war of words between Microsoft and the open source community show a level of understanding that both can co-exist, and that GNU/Linux is now part of the computing ecosystem within which Windows must operate.
The launch of Windows Live and its web-based services shows an understanding of how the software and services worlds are changing, and gives Microsoft a position from which to challenge Google in areas other than search.
And of course Microsoft’s home-grown search engine is being used by millions already, and the company has enough money to make it as good as any of the competitors and an installed base of Windows users who are likely to try it and may find they prefer it to the alternatives.
Unlike IBM, which simply denied that anything could replace the mainframe until it was too late, Bill Gates has been far more like the old english king Cnut, who demonstrated his intelligence by sitting on a beach while the tide came in in order to show his advisors that not even a king can resist the natural world.
So what will become of him now? He claims that he will devote himself to his charitable foundation, focusing on health care for the poorest people of the world, and he certainly has the financial resources needed to make a difference.
While you may be able to take the programmer out of Microsoft, I wonder if you will be able to take Microsoft out of the programmer.
Yet I doubt that Gates will become a Lear-like figure, railing against the policies and practices of his successors and wandering aimelessly from research lab to research lab in search of the power and respect he once held, only to turn up ranting ‘blow wind, and crack your passwords’ at a Linux Expo.
He is more likely to use the coming months to get rid of the nerd pose that has served him so well over the years and reveal the articulate, intelligent and extremely directed figure that has clearly been there all the time.
For Gates realised early on that being seen as a geek was a big advantage in negotiations with MBA-wielding executives, and that by disguising his sharp business acumen behind a dorky haircut and poor social skills he could win deals and grow his company.
We may be about to see the real Bill Gates for the first time, and I suspect he will remain as challenging, sharp and ambitious in his new life as he was in his work at Microsoft.