Gates announces his departure

As Bill Gates steps away from his daily role at Microsoft, the IT community will likely remember him as a powerful change agent who democratized computing.

As Microsoft chairman Bill Gates moves from computer industry icon to full-time philanthropist, he will look back at his role in shaping corporate information technology and recognize a job well done.

Microsoft said late Thursday that Gates will move out of his day-to-day role to spend more time working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a nonprofit whose stated mission is to bring innovations in health and learning to the global community. Between now and July 2008, Gates will work closely with current CTO Ray Ozzie, who will immediately assume the title of chief software architect. The company has also appointed CTO Craig Mundie to the new position of chief research and strategy officer. The company has had several major reorganizations in the past 12 months.

It's not always appreciated just how much Microsoft has stirred the pot. And for many, Microsoft is Bill Gates. IT executives and administrators will likely recall how Gates has, to a great extent, forced computer industry change. "We tend to think of Microsoft as it is today, but if you go back 10 or 15 years, a lot of what we think is standard practice [in the computing industry] was created by Microsoft," said Steve Kleynhans, vice president at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

Although Microsoft was not always the creator of new ideas, the software company has done much to popularize personal computing and make it broadly available to the masses. Applications like Office are pervasive around the globe. A decade ago, these tools were in the hands of some, but not all of the people, Kleynhans said.

The Gates transition comes just months after another icon of the computer industry, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Scott McNealy, said he would step down from his position after 22 years at the helm of that company. "If Scott McNealy can do it, so can Gates," said Jonathan Eunice, a principal at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H.-based consulting firm. "These guys have taken their companies through significant transitions in what their companies produce, and both feel they are at a reasonable point. They have a reasonable group they can hand over to. That's not always the case," he said.

"Microsoft has made individuals and small computers relevant," Eunice said. "Much in the way that Sun was making Unix important to computing, Microsoft made individual actions important, though they were not the only ones. The company has made the shift from servers to XML. It's fought a lot of major battles," he said.

Now Gates is making a major shift of his own. "I don't know what it's going to feel like to not work here for 10 hours [a day]," he said on a conference call today.

Gates called his working with chief executive officer Steve Ballmer as "one of the greatest business partnerships of all time." Ballmer will remain in his role as CEO.

Many doubt that Gates will be completely out of the loop because it is, to a great extent, his company. But in 50 years, Kleynhans said he doubts that Gates will be remembered as the Microsoft guy, but rather as the philanthropist. "In many ways I think that is how he will want it," Kleynhans said.

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