Rich man walking

Bill puts Microsoft in Steve's hands.

I started last week reading Code, Lawrence Lessigs erudite analysis of why BG (Bill Gates and/or big government) is the disease and open source is the cure. Then came AOL-Time Warner. Then came the Microsoft temp ruling. Then came the Department of Justice leak of a proposed Microsoft three-way split. Then came Bills ascent into heaven, and by weeks end I had abandoned Lessig and beat the retreat to Devon Jacksons Conspirinoia: The Mother Of All Conspiracy Theories.

It just felt right. The announcement that Bill Gates waswell, not exactly retiring, but certainly kicking day-to-day control of the company over to lieutenant and new CEO Steve Ballmer; call it a shuffling off of his management coilcame at the end of the kind of week that makes tech journalists skittish. (All these Big Events we werent expecting! How can this be? We are the tail; should we not wag the dog?!)

After all, turning over day-to-day operation of Microsoft leaves Bill with a lot of time on his hands. Granted, hes not off to a life of sipping juleps and working on his golf game: As chief software architect, hes got four product groups to browbeat and the Next Generation Windows Services initiative to unleash. But with the DoJ a-panting, temps a-suing, and AOL a-merging, surely even the most humble among us can sympathize with the urge to say "take this job and shove it." And if anyones got the money to quit his job on a whim

Of course this wasnt really a whim; I doubt that Bill called Steve Thursday morning and said "Dude, Im audi." On the other hand, its also not plausible that this is a response to Win2000 shipping, as both men claimed at the press conference (which was called so hastily the Associated Press didnt know how to slug it). And so conspiracy paranoia seemed the order of the day, as I (allegedly a member of the Media Elite, but theyre never going to let me go to the secret meetings if I keep up this attitude) pondered what it all meant, since it obviously meant something.

How about this: He did it because being CEO is a whole lot less fun than being what he is now, which is a guy with tech toys to play with and fewer meetings scheduled with annoying people.

On the whole this is a Good Thinggood for Microsoft, good for companies who have to deal with Microsoft, good for consumers, and good presumably for Gatesbecause though every great company needs a myth cycle, it works out better if Zeus isnt actually in the office fielding supplicants on a daily basis. Its good for Microsoft, a company in need of invigoration, to see a fresh face at the top of Olympus, and to see the guy Ballmer can never replace as Alpha Geek wading into the development fray again.

What if this change had come sooner? Its common knowledge that Gates was eager to get back to the aforementioned fray; anyone as clearly exasperated as he was during last years antitrust testimony really, really needs to be in a job that requires less exposure to the public (which is to say, to any group of people who doesnt accept the idea that might, or at least mighty brains and resolve, make right). If Ballmer had been the face of Microsoft during the trial, some of the excesses detailed might not have seemed so plausible: The DoJ looked into allegations of arrogance and found Bill staring back (or, rather, rocking back and forth and not making good eye contact).

But thats the past. Looking forward, Microsofts got the threat of proximate dismemberment to deal with. Ballmer has the heart and training of a salesman; the smiley-guy role suits him, and suits the political forces that are part of Microsofts life now. (With George W. Bush looming on the political horizon, there may be other reasons for changing that political face. Gates charitable donations through his foundations have a remarkably consistent cant to the left; Dubya seems like the kind of guy whod hold that against a fella.) Theres a whole set of meetings in Microsofts future that Bill needed to not attend.

And yesterdays hasty press conference not only gave the world a look at an ebullient Gates, it gave Microsoft a way of stepping around the cone of silence imposed by the ongoing DoJ settlement negotiations. Gates may be back to his geek ways, and Ballmer may finally be the CEO we always thought hed be eventually, but they are both still, and forever, strategists to the bone.

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