What Bill Gates can do to help Microsoft
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.
This week, a National Transportation Safety Board judge dismissed a $10,000 fine that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had lodged against a photographer who had used a drone to take aerial photos for the University of Virginia. The judge found that the FAA hadn't actually issued any enforceable rules regarding the use of commercial drones.
If you've got a Windows XP machine -- either at home or in the office -- consider yourself lucky. In the past, you'd upgrade to a more recent Windows operating system without a thought. Today, you have many options.
It's designed for the 3.5 billion people who have feature phones today. It solves technical problems Google is not interested in and is a better fit for the pre-paid phones popular in developing countries. The only trick is getting developers on board.
The cloud has overcome a lot of its technical challenges, especially when it comes to security. But the biggest problems in cloud computing now are cultural.