Dvorak: Gates Era Coming to an End at Microsoft

Bill Gates promises that he will relinquish control of Microsoft sometime next year.

He plans to become a full-time philanthropist in the mold of John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, perhaps topping them both.

Steve Ballmer will control day-to-day operations, with Craig Mundie and Ray Ozzie kind of playing Bill Gates's former roles as chief meddler and nitpicker. (Apparently, it takes two guys to be the equivalent of Bill Gates.)

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Of course, when Bill meddled and nitpicked Ballmer, it created a specific dynamic between the two.

It'll be a completely different situation when these two organization men start doing it to Ballmer. There is no way these two suits can harness Ballmer, a mind-boggling dynamo who borders on maniacal.

Personally, I wonder if the company can survive without Gates there on a day-to-day basis, berating the masochistic coders with his chiding.

Two of his favorites include, "Do we actually pay you to work here?" and "That's the stupidest thing I've EVER heard."

People always complain that Steve Jobs is a big meanie to the staff, but Gates is just as bad.

Floating around this industry, the thing you learn over time is that programmers have such low self-esteem that they take well to the berating, or it seems, so since nobody has punched out either Gates or Ballmer (or Jobs, for that matter) in 30 years. Instead, they sulk off in a "Yes, boss" kind of stupor.

Meanwhile, the company has to struggle with the reality that it cannot really do much right. This has to drive its people crazy. Okay, maybe not crazy, since boatloads of money are still flowing in, but it must be that because they know they can't do anything right.

What I'm saying may be a stretch because it is possible — in some perverse dimension — that some people at Microsoft actually think they are doing things right.

They may look at the miserable Vista OS, which arrived very late with all of its promised features gutted, and say to themselves, "Wow, we nailed that!"

It's possible if they are clinically insane, that is.

Maybe they look at the Zune and think it is better than an iPod despite the sales numbers.

Do they give each other high fives every time they upgrade Microsoft Office with a couple of new features? Are they walking around saying, "AutoCorrect rocks!!"?

I dunno, but I doubt it.

What really must gall them is all the naysaying and criticism (like this, for example) the company gets from all corners and especially from the investment community, which sees the stock as a dog despite never-ending revenue growth.

Now the company is making excuses for its strategy of copying Google rather than copying Apple.

I got the biggest kick out of a Wall Street Journal article that described how Microsoft was late to the music-player market and late to the advertising market and late to this and late to that.

It was an entire laundry list of parties Microsoft was late to that they should not have even attended. Why even do a music player?

And why should Microsoft even be in the advertising business? It's a manufacturing company: It should be the advertiser, not the outfit publishing the ads.

(Note: How come Apple is never criticized for being late to the advertising party or for not having a game machine? Weird, no?)

Late to the Phone Party

Anyway, now Microsoft is late to the phone party.

The company must be at its wits' end. For one thing, it had a phone OS years and years before Apple knew anything about phone software.

Does anyone say that Microsoft was ahead of its time? No, they say Apple is ahead of its time with the iPhone.

As for advertising, Microsoft was at full strength back in the late 1990s, with a slew of online magazines, Microsoft Sidewalk, and other initiatives that were all advertisement-driven. This was long before Google knew what to do with advertising.

Did anyone say Microsoft was ahead of its time, or that it was pioneering online advertising? No, they say the company is clueless about advertising.

Yes, even when Microsoft does something original, it seems to fall victim to bad timing.

There is a huge list of Microsoft carcasses on the Innovation Superhighway: MSX, Microsoft Live Meeting, the Pen computer, WinPad, Bob, Microsoft TV, MSNBC, those crazy watches, Microsoft Home division, the CD-ROM "Information at your Fingertips" business, Actimates (talking dolls), and the list goes on and on.

Much of this is the result of bad timing, and some because of poor leadership. All suffered from particularly miserable marketing.

I always like to point out that Microsoft, surprisingly, has no real VP of marketing or anything like it. This seems odd for a corporation this big.

Ballmer spent some time at Procter & Gamble after college, so I guess folks think that this is good enough.

Guess again. Microsoft innovation usually falls on its face because nobody knows what to do with it.

Will any of this change with Bill gone? You tell me.