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Gates: Wouldn't change a thing

The Microsoft chairman and founder looks forward to spending more time helping those who could most benefit from his time and assistance.

REDMOND, Wash.--Bill Gates says he is a man with no regrets.

After 30 years of leading Microsoft's software strategy, Gates said Thursday that there is little he would do differently.

"I would not change a thing," Gates said in an interview, shortly after announcing that he will become a part-timer at Microsoft, starting in mid-2008. "Sure, we've made mistakes along the way, but every one of those has been a chance to learn and do things better."

He does have a lot left to accomplish, though. On his list are some new things, like new models for computer programming, as well as some old things like his long-standing dream of a new, unified file-storage system for Windows.

"This is one that people like to give me a hard time about, because it's taken a long time and some of the moves we've made in that direction have shown what a challenge it is," Gates said.

Following the big news, Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer spoke to News.com about the past and future plans for both Gates and the company he founded.

Special coverage: The end of the Gates era

What are the things that you want to keep doing both for the next two years and once you are doing stuff part time? What are the things you think you can uniquely do that can't be filled by Ray Ozzie and some of the other folks?
Gates: Scanning the horizon for things that are small today, but are going to come up and be big, is something I think will always do for the company. Saying hey, video on the Internet or vision capability or...robotics--which isn't near, but we've got an incubation there because we think if five to 10 years out that could be a significant thing.

Ballmer: I'll expect Bill to continue to provide input. But essentially by two years from now, between, not my own personal visionary contribution, but really drawing out our top people, even on this the commitment I made to Bill is we are going to in the position where hopefully we anticipate anything he'd suggest to us. That's part of getting the company to the place where it can have this broad, big agenda and it's got to be driven not only by guys like me but by the next generation of leaders.

You've been involved in the foundation stuff for a long time and you've talked about bringing in experts. You're not the malaria expert. What is it you feel you can achieve by devoting more time to the foundation?
Gates: Bringing the right people together and giving them the right framework, that actually matches a lot of what we do at Microsoft. Something like Xbox or the next version of Exchange, I'm not the expert on those things. But I can ask, "Did you think about this, did you think about that?" The health thing is a lot like that. I read about the technology. I meet the specialists. I'm like a manager who learns as much about the field as he can and that's fun for me. So it's not as dissimilar from what I do here as you might think.

"I will be in some more obscure locations, because that's where these diseases or needs are found...a lot of slums that I don't get to much right now."
--Bill Gates

Ballmer: Bill's capacity to absorb, to connect concepts and to contribute is unparalleled. Frankly, I'm glad it's the foundation. I think that's a wonderful thing for Bill to do, but you can name any institution and I'd tell you they'd be lucky to have Bill contribute, even if it was as far afield as you can come up with from technology.

You have a pretty busy travel schedule now speaking publicly, largely on behalf of Microsoft. Do you think you will be doing the same thing around the issues the foundation handles?
Gates: I don't think my travel will go down. I will be in some more obscure locations, because that's where these diseases or needs are found...a lot of slums that I don't get to much right now. I will continue to do public things for Microsoft. We'll pick the things that it's right to do. The health issues and education issues, government is the biggest player there. There will be as much a need to speak out for the time I spend there as there is elsewhere. You always have to pick a few things you want to articulate and get out there. You can't be speaking out on too many things at once, whether it's Microsoft saying, "OK, let's really get this product visibility" or for the foundation picking new things.

Obviously, so much of the company is something that you've done or led or built or championed. Are there things that you point to as what you are most proud of?
Gates: There's two basic models that I am most proud of. One is a vision of how a software-driven tool could empower people and the idea that the hardware could be standardized and you could build this huge software industry. There wasn't a software industry really before we came along.

The second is much more about people. We pick great people. We believe in the innovative products they can do and we're relentless about staying behind them. That framework has been so key to this company whether it was DOS, graphics user interface, integrated Office.

We were not an overnight success in word processing. WordPerfect, WordStar, there were what, four products that were more popular than us at various times along the way? Eventually we persevered and did that very well.

And we're willing to take on things like Tablet (PC) that, you know, it's hard. At first, the hardware is a little bit too big and the software recognition is not quite as good as it should be, but you just learn and learn and learn.

Ballmer: Gosh, and I thought you were going to say the Basic interpreter for the model 100.

Gates: Well that's the last thing I personally wrote.

Many people, when they are looking to move on, the hard thing is there's one or two things at the top of their list that just haven't gotten done yet. Obviously you have a couple years to still work on those, but are there a couple things that are really at the top of your list?
Gates: Two years is a long time in this industry and I do hope that Microsoft, with my full-time help, achieves a lot in the next two years. Real-time communication: We're kicking off some things there that I think are going to surprise people. This new wave of products has a lot built into it that will only be recognized over this next couple of years.

News.com Poll

Bill Gates has set a timetable to end his day-to-day work at Microsoft. Do you agree with his plans?

Too soon. There's no one else who can fill his shoes.
Not soon enough. He should have left years ago.
Just about right. The company's in capable hands with Ballmer, Ozzie and crew.

View results

There's a few things like unifying storage. I'm really going to infect Ray with my deep belief in unified storage so that any hour I'm not here, he is carrying that torch. This is one that people like to give me a hard time about, because it's taken a long time and some of the moves we've made in that direction have shown what a challenge it is. I still very, very much believe in that. Model-based programming--we have some of our technical fellows who come in and work on that. I want to make sure they get to a (certain) point. That may be one of my part-time things, we don't know.

Ballmer: I know this guy well enough to know, at any point in time if he was going to make a transition like the one we're talking about now, there would be a set of things that he's excited about. This is as good a time to do this (as any). Today it's "fu," tomorrow it would be "bar." Bill gets excited about this stuff pretty easily.

There does seem to be this disconnect between the way that you guys talk about where the company is at and the conventional wisdom. People point to a number of things--stock price, morale, faster-moving competitors.
Ballmer: The morale thing is a weird one. We poll our employees. Morale is in pretty darn good shape, in fact. We've recruited more people, we've had better success on college campuses and industry hiring. Attrition rates of good performers is near an all-time low. People want to work here; they are excited about the kinds of stuff we are doing.

Stock prices do go up and down but profits don't. Our profits have grown steadily. There's always some competitors we are doing well enough against and some we are not. If you look back three or four years ago, many people said open source would inherit the earth and we've done very well.

Sure there are competitive challenges in front of us. I don't deny that, but there have been competitive challenges before. I'm not casual about those. On the other hand, hey, we've got a lot of good people working on a lot of things in search and music and advertising, which I think are the areas people dwell on. Today, I guess we get a chance to surprise people on the upside. Conventional wisdom is often not right.

As you look back, is there anything you'd do differently?
Gates: I would not change a thing. I have such an amazing job. Sure, we've made mistakes along the way but every one of those has been a chance to learn and do things better. This is the most interesting company, the neatest set of both business and technical people. I wouldn't change anything.