Is Bill Gates' assumption of the title chief software architect a genuine move to captain the software giant through stormy seas ahead, or a skilful manoeuvre ahead of the anti-trust judgement? asks Cliff Saran

Bill Gates last week plunged Microsoft into a cauldron of speculation over its future direction by announcing his decision to step down as the company's chief executive.

The news tops a turbulent few months for the world's largest software supplier which has been dogged by setbacks in its long-running dispute with the US Department of Justice in the run-up to the launch of Windows 2000, its flagship operating system.

Analysts and industry commentator squizzed by Computer Weekly this week are still struggling to understand the ramifications of Gates' decision to effectively hand over the senior management of the company which he co-founded in 1975 with Paul Allen.

But all agree that them move will have long-term repercussions for users, most of whom have, over the past decade, come to rely on Microsoft's products to run their IT systems.

At stake is Microsoft's long-term future - its ability to continue to dominate software development and its ability to cope with regulatory pressures and the fast-changing IT softwaremarket. Failure could wreck the company's ambitions.

Most analysts agree that the two issues that will shape Microsoft's future will be the coherence of the revamped management structure and Gates' ability to influence direction in his new role.

Under the new plans, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's president, takes over as chief executive officer.

Gates' revised role makes him chairman and chief software architect. This is a position which Gates insisted would "allow me to spend almost 100% of my time on software technologies".

How central a part Gates can play in Microsoft from this position is uncertain. The software giant has never really been considered in the IT community as a technical innovator.

Rob Hailstone, research director at analyst group Bloor Research, said the changes could sideline Gates from the business. He said, "Microsoft is not a great [software] innovator but it is a great exploiter."

As for Gates' new role, Simon Moores, chairman of the Windows NT Forum said, "Gates has not programmed for years. Microsoft is a supreme imitator and Gates is an astute business man."

Users, who have based their IT systems on Microsoft technologies may be left wondering what is Microsoft's vision beyond Windows 2000. Ballmer has spoken of offering software "on tap", but has yet to offer a roadmap.

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This was first published in January 2000

 

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