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Why Microsoft won't miss Gates

It's still too soon to write the final chapter, but CNET's Charles Cooper says the record is a mixed one.

It was pure happenstance that Bill Gates decided to announce his planned departure from Microsoft a day before the world celebrates the anniversary of Bloomsday. That's the day--June 16, 1904, actually--on which James Joyce chose to set his Dublin novel, "Ulysses," a brilliant chronicle of how its main characters are affected by the most unpredictable personal events. I don't know if Bill Gates is much of a Joyce fan, but his life is about to change in great ways that nobody can now predict. Same goes for Steve Ballmer, who shared with his old college buddy perhaps the most successful business partnership in the history of the technology business.

But it's time to take a deep breath and consider the wider significance of Gates' upcoming job change to full-time philanthropist. We live in a celebrity culture and naturally make a fuss about the rich and famous--even more so when they're rich and famous. And when we're talking about the richest of them all...well, you get the picture. 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

After the dissipation of the initial excitement, the public announcement of Gates' upcoming departure will matter less to Microsoft than what the world will understandably say about it. Don't take my word for it. Listen to what Gates had to say about the subject.

"The world has focused a disproportionate amount of attention on me," Gates said about 10 minutes into his press conference.

And he was absolutely right.

Later in the press conference a reporter suggested that Gates was responsible for many of the company's innovations. ("What innovations?" I can hear the peanut gallery retort. But let's leave that discussion for another day.) Shouldn't the market be concerned that he's leaving in a couple of years?

It was a naive question. Even though Gates turned over the CEO reins to Ballmer six years ago, the media treats him as if he were still The Man. If you've ever attended a Gates press conference, you know what I mean.

Special coverage: The end of the Gates era

The reality is this planned transition is part of the normal generational shift in any great corporation. Yes, Microsoft is a great corporation--even though its many warts are increasingly visible.

Today's Microsoft is more of a plodder. With nearly 70,000 employees and some $50 billion in annual revenue, Microsoft no longer resembles the entrepreneurial dynamo Gates co-founded in 1975 with Paul Allen. So it is that the company is now working feverishly just to keep from falling farther behind Google while fighting off the potentially deadly threat posed by open-source software.

How much will Microsoft really miss Gates? Ballmer got a little misty when he took the podium to praise his old partner. But frankly, the company was not a fount of brilliant technologies during the six years Gates was Microsoft's chief software architect. It's still too soon to render history's verdict, but the record will undeniably be mixed.

It is not simply coincidence that Google's sprint past Microsoft also took place on Gates' watch as chief technology guru. The strategies that spelled success in the 1980s and 1990s no longer packed the same punch in the Internet era. While the computing world embraced technologies that depended less on proprietary desktop applications, Microsoft too long remained in a world of its own. To wit: No, Linux isn't a threat, software offerings delivered over the Internet like have no future, and Web-based browsers are a poor substitute for robust applications suites.

Gates' blind spots notwithstanding, the man's legacy of achievement is formidable. Beyond the billions of dollars in wealth Microsoft generated, the company spawned a cottage industry of hundreds of companies that developed software for the Windows platform.

Gates' detractors sometimes forget how much he did to help usher in his vision of personal computing. For better or for worse, this is very much still a Microsoft world.

Now he's looking to write the next chapter, and his ambitions for changing the face of education and health care around the globe are no less ambitious.

"With great wealth comes great responsibility," he said, adding that he wants to make sure "that those resources are put to work in the best possible way to help those in most need."

An admirable sentiment. I can only wish him well.