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Goodbye, Mr. Gates

Bill Gates' recent announcement that he is handing over the role of chief software architect to Ray Ozzie, and passing on the torch of day-to-day operations at Microsoft in July 2008, probably didn't come as a great surprise to anyone who has observed the history of the company--or of Gates himself.

Love him or hate him, Gates is an idealistic geek at heart--he truly wants to change the world. On the tech front, he has surely accomplished that. Few companies have affected the course of computing and IT as profoundly as Microsoft, whether through the omnipresent Windows OS, the ubiquitous Internet Explorer or the ground-breaking Visual Basic (reputed to have made it amazingly easy to write bad code).

The numbers speak for themselves. Eighty-seven percent of businesses use the Windows desktop operating system and 93 percent use Office, according to a 2005 Network Computing survey. IE boasted 96 percent market penetration at its 2002 peak, and is still the world's dominant browser.

But visionaries who change the world often can't adapt to changes they haven't made themselves. Gates is a modern-day Henry Ford but, after being wildly successful at populating the entire IT world with cheap, ubiquitous and "good enough," products, Microsoft has become the American auto industry of the 1970s. Though big and rich, it cranks out few gems in proportion to its fleet of clunky, inefficient monstrosities, and it has the turning radius of an aircraft carrier. Newer agents of change have emerged, a la the Japanese auto makers, to outfox the behemoth.

That said, Microsoft is too entrenched to simply vanish. It's also too entrenched for Gates to lift it from its current morass. The company has become a victim of its own success, and may have grown beyond any one person's ability--even its creator--to infuse it with a fresh vision. --Richard Hoffman, [email protected]