The biggest Microsoft question: What about Bill?

Photo: OnInnovation

Meet Bill Gates, technology advisor to Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella.

To assume that post, Gates, who cofounded Microsoft in 1975, is ceding his role as chairman to become more hands-on with the company’s product strategy and execution. Bloomberg broke the news of that possibility last week and expanded on it Monday — and sure enough, it’s come to pass.

For those who wanted to see demonstrable change atop Microsoft, this is worrisome. For much of Steve Ballmer’s 13-year tenure as CEO, Gates was off saving the world, running the multi-billion-dollar Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, chatting with Charlie Rose, fighting malaria. But it seems pretty clear in this succession drama that Team Gates was active in engineering just what would go down.

That, say Microsoft insiders, is the real story here. Some are not all that thrilled to see a return of the cofounder — who, after all, missed the internet and contributed to the Vista debacle — to an active role. In a Microsoft video posted this morning (embedded below), Gates said he’ll devote one-third of his time to meet with Microsoft product groups to help define next-gen products.

“I’m thrilled that Satya asked me to step up and substantially increasing the amount of time I spend at the company,” Gates said.

Some Microsoft shareholders — institutional and otherwise — had advocated that Gates leave the board so that the new CEO wouldn’t have to deal with a founder looking over his shoulder. That’s certainly not going to happen now. Conspiracy theorists would say Gates made sure it wouldn’t by pushing for his own CEO candidate, one who needs him, over outside possibilities like Ford CEO Alan Mullaly who was seen as Ballmer’s pick.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) that Nadella told the Microsoft board he’d need Gates to be active to succeed as CEO.

Nadella echoed that sentiment in his letter to Microsoft employees Tuesday morning:

“I’ve been fortunate to work closely with both Bill and Steve in my different roles at Microsoft, and as I step in as CEO, I’ve asked Bill to devote additional time to the company, focused on technology and products.”

Which begs the question of just how much will Gates tinker with Microsoft going forward. And if he plans to be hands-on and active, is that necessarily a good thing? I’m guessing not because, unlike some others, I don’t think this company should go back to the future. It needs to look ahead.

Make no mistake, Nadella is a great choice as CEO. I’m just not sure he needs the company co-founder and former CEO as a shadow.

Check out the Bill Gates video below:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5BhQVuRcTk]

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