Maybe Bill Gates should follow Steve Ballmer out of Microsoft. Allowing Mr. Ballmer to buy Nokia’s smartphone business as he exits will saddle his replacement with a flawed strategy. The company’s founder and chairman bears some responsibility for this and other missteps. With under 5 per cent of the shares – scarcely more than Mr. Ballmer owns – Mr. Gates matters more to his charitable foundation than to Microsoft these days.
In a sense, it’s sacrilegious to suggest Mr. Gates and the software behemoth he started part ways. He understands technology like few others and has demonstrated the acumen to create a huge business, now worth some $270-billion (U.S.). With about $12.4-billion of stock, he is also still the biggest single shareholder and, given the long personal association, he surely cares about Microsoft’s future.
Yet his many talents don’t include effectiveness as chairman. Under his leadership, Microsoft’s board left Mr. Ballmer in place too long. Now that the CEO is to retire within a year, Mr. Gates doesn’t have a replacement ready, an important task for any chairman. The board let Mr. Ballmer waste money chasing consumer markets and hardware, with the company’s online services business losing $12-billion over the past three years alone.
True, during the last decade of Mr. Ballmer’s 13-year tenure, the maturing company has returned more than $180-billion to investors, far more than any of its technology peers. Despite this and Mr. Ballmer’s passion, evident at Microsoft’s annual investor meeting last week, shareholders just don’t seem to believe in the company’s strategy, developed with Mr. Ballmer and Mr. Gates in charge. Over 10 years, Microsoft shares are barely higher. By comparison, with the odd exception like Hewlett-Packard, the likes of Apple, Google, Oracle and IBM have recorded big gains. The Nasdaq index has roughly doubled.
Mr. Gates’ primary interest also arguably lies elsewhere these days. He stopped working full-time at Microsoft five years ago. Improving education and preventing disease worldwide may also seem more compelling these days than deciding whether a sprawling company should build tablet computers. Mr. Ballmer’s belated departure offers Mr. Gates a window of opportunity. The world might be better off with his full attention on the foundation – and so would Microsoft’s investors.