August 27, 2013, 9:00 AM — Now that CEO Steve Ballmer has announced that he will be leaving Microsoft sometime in the next year, some people hope that Bill Gates will come out of retirement and ride in like the U.S. cavalry to save the beleaguered company. That won't happen.
Gates can't rescue Microsoft. He's at least partly responsible for the company's current woes, because Ballmer in his years at Microsoft mainly followed Gates' playbook, which holds that Windows is Microsoft's centerpiece. And by sticking to that mind-set, Microsoft fell far behind in big growth areas, notably mobile and Internet search.
Since Gates' retirement from day-to-day Microsoft responsibilities to focus on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he has taken on a can-do-nothing-wrong aura. If only he still headed Microsoft, a strain of thinking goes, the company would be able to see its way out of the wilderness. After all, Gates was the visionary who in 1995 wrote a memo titled "The Internet Tidal Wave," in which he declared that "our focus on the Internet is crucial to every part of our business. The Internet is the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981."
Such thinking ignores that the seeds of Microsoft's current woes were sown under Gates. It's one thing to have a vision and another to put it into effect. And that's where Gates failed. Three years after he wrote that memo, Microsoft remained focused primarily on Windows and didn't have a solid Internet strategy. A startup named Google was born that year. The rest is history.
Microsoft blew its chances at mobile computing under Gates as well. In 2001, when Gates had turned over his position as CEO to Ballmer, but was the company's chief software architect, Microsoft announced its Tablet PC, essentially a full-blown computer in tablet form, costing thousands of dollars and running Windows. No one wanted one. It wasn't until Apple released the iPad, nine years later, that tablet computing took off.