Twenty-five years after founding Microsoft, the high-tech icon will return to the bits and bytes that began his quest to make the personal computer an integral part of everyday life.
At this volatile juncture, predicting Gates' legacy with any certainty would be a dangerous undertaking. He and his company face ever-increasing threats, ranging from federal prosecutors to next-generation software, that may well have contributed to his desire to move out of the immediate spotlight.
Still, his influence on technology, society and global economics is undeniable. Like it or hate it, Microsoft's software is the primary method to get information, to do work and to communicate online for much of the planet. And Gates' tenure as chief executive has in many ways come to symbolize the dawning of the information age and capitalism in the digital world.
"During this tenure, his role has changed from a geek among geeks to a dominant leader in a dominant industry," Zona Research said in a statement. "We suspect that today's announcement reflects a reality that somewhere along the way that initial passion for technology was pushed aside in order to focus upon developing the business."
That passion is now a well-worn tale. Gates dropped out of Harvard University during his junior year so he could focus on the obsession that had enveloped him since the age of 13, computer programming. He and close friend Paul Allen, now a billionaire financier, decided that it was time to devote their full energies to a project they'd started in 1975: Microsoft.
Incorporated in 1981, Microsoft quickly gained a foothold in the nascent PC industry, providing the operating system for early versions of IBM's computers--a stroke of luck that propelled the company to a public stock offering by 1986.
Gates and his crew then embarked on a steady march of projects that would later become legend in the technology world: the launch of Windows 3.0 in 1990; the debut of Windows NT in 1993; the whirlwind announcement of Windows 95; the come-from-behind Internet revelation as 1995 closed; and the delivery of Windows 98 amid a flurry of antitrust litigation.
Parallel to these events were a slew of external market developments that has given Microsoft its cutthroat reputation. Among them were the epic battles with archrival Apple Computer and the growth of a PC industry that eventually broke free of IBM, the mother of modern technology.
There were also the persistent claims--dramatized to the rest of the world last year in the cable movie "The Pirates of Silicon Valley"--that Gates and Co. were simply appropriators of others' innovation.
In recent months, Gates' executive role has been far less heady--and sometimes downright defensive.
With fame comes scrutiny, and Gates has been a lightning rod on everything from regulatory issues to economic protest. His face has acquired instant recognition through such high-profile events as his sworn testimony in Microsoft's federal antitrust trial and a pie-throwing incident in Europe that made international headlines as a symbolic prank on the world's richest man.
Throughout Microsoft's gravity-defying trajectory, the industry watched incredulously as Gates evolved from a gaunt, fashion-challenged brainiac into a highly regarded spokesman for technology, continually stressing its role as a catalyst for larger societal changes.
Now, having built a 33,000-employee company worth more than $500 billion, Gates hopes to return to his software beginnings at a time when the company arguably faces more competition that at any point in its history. The growth of Internet as a method to develop and deploy software, the explosion of PC alternatives such as handheld devices and the competitive reality of upstart software movements such as Linux all threaten to dismantle Microsoft's dominance.
In addition, new types of competitors are amassing at Microsoft's industrial borders, as evidenced by this week's $160 billion merger of Internet service provider America Online and media conglomerate Time Warner.
During a speech last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Gates paid homage to the new millennium and the opportunities that will emerge with it. In doing so, he hinted at where his heart lies.
"Now it's come, and we need to look forward to what comes next," Gates told a packed house. "And it is a very exciting time to be looking forward. The pace of innovation has never been more rapid."