Gates to step down from Microsoft

Will wind down through 2007, Ozzie to take chief architect role

With the planning and forethought that seem to accompany most of Microsoft’s big corporate shifts (think “The Trustworthy Computing” memo), Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates’ surprise announcement that he plans to leave his position to focus more on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation came as a major surprise.

Gates said Thursday that he would transition out of day-to-day involvement in the company, effective July 2008. The announcement put Microsoft into full-on spin control, with a hastily arranged press conference and news that CTO Ray Ozzie will immediately assume Gates’ role as chief software architect.

“We have a great team of people, and I believe we can make this transition without missing a beat,” Gates said in a live press conference.

Gates said his decision followed two years of discussions with CEO Steve Ballmer about reducing his involvement in the company. He said he is leaving his post to focus on the Gates Foundation, a charity he established in 2000 that now has almost $30 billion in assets.

“Just as Microsoft took off in ways that I couldn’t have expected, so has the work of the foundation, and it’s growing rapidly,” Gates said. “With the early successes comes the challenge of scaling up and delivering these new approaches to everyone who can benefit. As a result, I want to spend more time on foundation efforts in the future.”

Gates tapped spreadsheet pioneer and industry visionary Ozzie to take over responsibility for guiding Microsoft’s overall strategy. Ozzie, 50, worked alongside Dan Bricklin at Software Arts, which made VisiCalc the first spreadsheet program. Ozzie is best known for his work at Lotus Development on the Notes e-mail and groupware product. He came to Microsoft when it bought his startup Groove Software in April 2005.

Craig Mundie, a 14-year veteran of the company who created its Consumer Platforms Division, will become chief research and strategy officer.

Gates said scaling back his involvement in Microsoft’s daily operations will allow the spotlight to shine on some of the company’s other talent.

“The world has had a tendency to focus a disproportionate amount of attention on me,” Gates said. “Microsoft has always had an unbelievably strong depth and breadth of talent.”

Tom Pilla, a spokesman at Microsoft and 10-year veteran of the company, said the news was a surprise to employees, but that the hefty two years’ notice and the strong stable of executives who will step into Gates’ shoes give him comfort that Microsoft will make a smooth transition to new leadership.

Tom Snyder, a Microsoft employee who left in 1997 and is now president and founder of iNetoffice, a Web-based word processor, echoed that thought, and said Ozzie’s deep experience with integrated services, such as Funk, may be a better fit for Microsoft in the future. “It could be that Bill thinks [Ozzie] has a better vision,” he said.

In this article
, we should have  stated that VisiCalc was created by Dan Bricklin for his company Software Arts. Ray Ozzie worked on VisiCalc as a Software Arts employee. InfoWorld  regrets the error, which has been corrected.