June 22, 2010, 12:31 PM — Love him or hate him, Bill Gates was, and still is, the face of Microsoft. What Microsoft doesn't want you to know though is that Gates has almost nothing to do with the company anymore.
That's what comes across loud and clear in the recent Fortune overview of the world's richest man. Instead of plotting out how to knock Apple back into the dirt or how to put Google in its place, Gates spends his days on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, stopping by the laboratories of Intellectual Ventures to talk blue-sky ideas every few weeks with Nathan Myhrvold, and dropping off or picking up his three kids from school.
Bill Gates? The great white-shark of computing doing the suburban dad routine!? Yes, yes he is, albeit I doubt he drives a mini-van.
While this is fine for Gates, it doesn't bode well for Microsoft. As ace Microsoft reporter Mary Jo Foley, told me when we talked about the article, she liked the article "because it admits what MS doesn't want out there: Gates is no longer really involved at the company. They are scared for that to be known even though to us it is obvious."
So why is this scary? Because Microsoft has been tanking in recent years. While Microsoft's last quarter was far better than it was a year ago, thanks largely to Windows 7 finally picking up steam, neither Microsoft's growth nor its profits are what they were like when Gates was at the helm.
As Rob Glaser, chairman of RealNetworks and former Microsoft employee, points out, Microsoft's business still remains as PC-centric as ever, and we're entering a world where computing does not turn around PCs. Apple gets that. Google gets that. Microsoft doesn't.
And, Microsoft won't so long as Steve Ballmer is at the controls. Ballmer's a fine salesman, but he's no Bill Gates. I've long thought that if Microsoft really wanted to become the big, bad Microsoft of old, the company should fire Ballmer. To those reasons, I'd add that everyone at Microsoft who talks to me tells me that Ballmer does not, I repeat does not, want to hear anything he doesn't want to hear. He's about as capable of changing his course as the Titanic on its way to its fateful date with an iceberg.
It's not going to happen though. As I said to Foley, "I wonder when they'll have the guts to admit (read fire) that Ballmer can't cut it." Her reply was "Never. That is never going to happen." After some thought, I can see her point. Ballmer has no effective opposition either within Microsoft or on its board.
Besides, as I observed, "Who the heck could replace him anyway? I can't think of anyone inside MS and they're sure not going to look outside." Well, actually, there is one place that Microsoft could look, and that is to Bill Gate's house. But, he's not coming back. Bill Gates has left the building.
This is a good thing for Apple, Google, Oracle, and the Linux companies, but for Microsoft? Well, I, for one, expect Microsoft to continue its slow decline from the top of the computer industry.