Software’s big shake-up

First Plattner, then McNealy. Now Gates. Who’ll keep the flame in these companies?

Last week’s announcement that a graying and dignified-looking Bill Gates would relinquish his day-to-day role at Microsoft was the latest chapter in a major changing of the guard for the software industry. First came SAP’s Hasso Plattner, who’s still pulling strings as chairman of SAP’s supervisory board but is no longer the always-on CEO. Then came Sun’s Scott McNealy, handing over the reins none too soon for many industry observers.

And now Bill says he too will pull an Obi-Wan Kenobi, relinquishing the chief software architect role and daily duties. Plattner, McNealy, Gates … all three co-founders, visionaries, charismatic (well, two out of three ain’t bad). All three fought the power and then 20 years later became the power, with huge targets on their backs.

Why are these guys backing off while people like Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison are still hard at it? (Even David Filo, I’ve heard, is still sweating the details of Yahoo’s architecture late into the night despite not needing the overtime.) And more important, who will keep the flame in these companies after the big guns ride off into the sunset? Who’ll write the all-hands-on-deck memos about the Next Big Thing … and will anybody read them?

Also, what exactly does the chairman do in a large software company anyway? (My guess is they’re like the chicken at the ham ’n’ eggs breakfast -- “The chicken’s involved, but the pig’s committed,” as Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale used to say.)

Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. I recently chatted with a new Microsoft product manager at a trade show who told me the company would never swap its big-bang four-year release cycles for an always-improving Internet utility model because “enterprise customers don’t want that.” Somebody needs to bring that guy to his senses -- quickly -- and I don’t know if Gates was gonna be the one to do it.

Bill, if you’re reading this, I personally wish you luck eradicating malaria and other diseases (while reforming the way the non-profit world works and hanging out with Bono), which is probably higher leverage for the world than leading the charge on Windows 2012 anyhow. But I do have a couple of quick feature requests before you go. Call me!

Would you like fries with that app server? McKinsey is out with a survey of European CIOs, who overwhelmingly claimed they’d like to buy IT and telecommunications services from the same provider, as part of an integrated, package deal. To reduce complexity, they’d like end-to-end SLAs for standardized services that can be deployed globally.

Alas, “few providers have sufficient skills in both domains to offer a complete package,” reports McKinsey -- despite the fact that IT and telecom decisions are increasingly being made within a single department reporting to the CIO. IT providers should bulk up on their telecom capabilities, McKinsey advised, and vice versa.

The report also predicted that as customers focus more on broad service level agreements they’ll deemphasize contracts that specify technology brands. However, “IT staffs sometimes resist a service-level contract because they trust certain brands and may be reluctant to cede control.” Maybe because they don’t want to lose their jobs when the network crashes and the apps fail? Sometimes you gotta wonder what those consultants are thinking.