First things first. Microsoft doesn't need to be saved. The company continues to increase its revenues and profits from an immense base, and its margins -- especially on its core business of on-premises enterprise software -- are still enviable.
The new CEO, Satya Nadella, should and almost certainly will continue along the basic course plotted by Steve Ballmer and company: Continue to milk the Office near-monopoly (especially in businesses) for all it's worth; keep Windows at the center of the traditional PC market while countering the iPad by gradually refining the hybrid PC-tablet model envisioned (but poorly executed) by Windows 8; and ride the on-premises enterprise software licensing business as high as it will go, taking share away from players like IBM, Oracle, and Cisco in key markets like e-mail servers, datacenter servers, database software, real-time communications, and CRM. That will keep revenues and profits solid long enough to continue investing in newer and strategically vital -- but currently smaller and much less profitable -- businesses like cloud services (Azure and Office 365), mobile devices and software, and living room hardware+software+services (Xbox).
Consumer and enterprise. Software and devices and services. Don't expect a huge retreat from any of those concepts.
So Nadella should and probably will stay the course. But that brings us to the most fascinating part of yesterday's announcement: Bill Gates is returning to a much bigger role at the company he founded.
By all accounts, Gates was mostly checked out of Microsoft from the time he stepped down as Chief Software Architect in 2006 and some time last year, when he became actively involved in the search to replace Steve Ballmer and started spending more time on Microsoft's campus meeting with product groups. Now, at Nadella's invitation, Gates will spend about one-third of his time back at Microsoft.
As blogger Ben Thompson points out, Gates's return to Microsoft is quite different from Steve Jobs's return to Apple -- Microsoft is thriving and huge, Apple was near bankruptcy and had already shrunk to a much more manageable size. Gates can't return Microsoft to the top of the world by culling focusing on a single company-saving product, as Jobs initially did with the iMac.
So what can Bill Gates actually do for the company?
- Bring back the Bill Review. In the early days of Microsoft, Gates would personally review plans for almost every product that went out the door. As the company grew, he continued to do these reviews for key products. Microsoft insiders talk about how the Bill Review was a focusing event -- it forced everybody to crystallize their ideas and be prepared to defend them. Gates had an amazing mind for both the technology and business side, and could be scathing during these meetings, but if you were able to defend your approach intelligently, he'd sometimes back down. Bringing these reviews back for critical areas like mobile platforms and cloud services could help Microsoft product teams catch obvious mistakes, understand markets, and execute better. Plus, it could motivate and excite (maybe scare -- in a good way) newer employees who never got the experience of meeting, much less presenting to, the legendary founder.
- Reach out to the new generation of developers. Many old-time Microsofties reserve special nostalgia for the Developer Relations Group from the early 1990s, which convinced developers to build for Microsoft platforms and helped establish Windows as the de facto industry standard for personal computing. Microsoft has already started to do a lot to reach out to younger developers; bringing Gates's brains and starpower to this task could accelerate these efforts.
- Recruit. One of Ballmer's greatest failings was the brain drain, particularly of well-respected long-time executives, that occurred during his watch. Microsoft lost a lot of excellent executives and engineers, particularly in the last five years. A personal appeal from Gates could help bring some of these stars back -- or help recruit new ones from high-profile competitors like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
- Re-energize Microsoft Research. Microsoft Research, the company's "pure" academic research arm, was Bill Gates's idea, although he assigned Nathan Myhrvold the task of bringing it about. The research arm contributed directly to a lot of Microsoft products over the years, including SQL Server and its digital media platform. But lately, we haven't heard much from this group, with the exception of occasional "gee whiz" product ideas trotted out for the press and never seen again. Where was MSR when Apple was revolutionizing touch screens? Where was MSR when Facebook invented the Social Graph? Gates could do a lot to re-energize pure research at Microsoft, then make sure its innovations are actually transferred into product groups.
- Placate Wall Street. Here, I don't think Gates actually has to do much of anything. He certainly shouldn't start bowing to demands to sell off "non-core" parts of the company. But a few well-leaked stories about how his involvement is sharping the company, or an occasional phone call or personal visit to explain, for example, why Microsoft is keeping Bing despite its poor performance as a standalone business unit, or why Microsoft built a separate version of Windows for ARM processors when it already had Windows CE/Mobile/Phone, could go a long way toward calming the fears of investors who think Microsoft has lost its way.
Note what I'm not suggesting: I don't think Gates should suddenly start plotting a dramatically different course, or oversee big new product areas, or even be the deciding voice on vital strategy questions like "how aggressively should Microsoft build and promote Office on non-Windows platforms?"
First, exercising too much influence on products would undercut Nadella, leading to inevitable second-guessing -- "oh well, the CEO didn't like my idea, I'll just bring it to Bill directly." The buck has to stop with Nadella, or the company infighting will get worse than ever.
But perhaps more damningly, a lot of Gates's pet projects in the early 2000s were misfires. He was a big personal proponent of WinFS (the proposed -- and abandoned -- file system-cum-database that was originally part of Longhorn, the operating system that eventually shipped as Vista), the SPOT smart watches, and Windows XP Tablet edition. In many of these cases, he was right on the general direction of the technology industry -- just look at the iPad and listen to all the chatter nowadays about wearables, for instance. But perhaps he was too early. Or perhaps he had certain biases toward the past -- like insisting that Windows should be the center of Microsoft's mobile strategy -- that the teams assigned to develop these products just couldn't overcome.
Gates is a brilliant mind. But Microsoft already has a CEO. The last thing it needs is a second one.