Life has certainly led Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates down a fascinating path. Famous for dropping out of Harvard to start his own software company—back in the days when there really weren’t any software companies—Gates went on to become one of the world’s most influential businessmen…not to mention the richest man in the world. Love Microsoft, hate Microsoft, or feel conflicted about Microsoft, there’s no denying that in the last 30 years Bill Gates has played a major role in shaping modern business, the technology industry, and even pop culture and modern lifestyles. Now, Gates is moving on to focus his energies on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on charity and philanthropic efforts around the world. Yes: Bill Gates’ new job is giving away his money - full time.
Gates has been stepping back from his day-to-day roles at Microsoft for some time: in 2000, his long-time partner and college buddy Steve Ballmer took the reigns as Microsoft CEO, and in 2006 Gates handed the role of Chief Software Architect to Ray Ozzie. Gates will continue to serve as chairman of Microsoft’s board and will keep his hands in selected projects. He also remains Microsoft’s largest single shareholder. But for all effective purposes, Bill Gates’ tenure at the helm of Microsoft has ended.
Gates plans to devote his time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which he founded ten years ago with his wife. The Gates Foundation has an endowment of over $38 billion and has become the world’s largest charitable foundation. Gates doesn’t plan to step into an operational role at the foundation; rather, Gates is expected to focus on guiding the organization’s overall strategy and to act as an advocate for the problems and issues the foundation tries to address, such as the AIDS/HIV epidemic in Africa, world hunger, disease prevention, endemic poverty, literacy, education, and a myriad of other complicated issues.
Without Gates, Microsoft continues to face a number of difficult challenges, including competing for dominance of the Web with the likes of Google, building an online media and advertising business, and coping with continued antitrust scrutiny from the European Union and other regulators. The company also faces challenges evolving its Windows platform (especially given the lukewarm reception to Vista and demand for the seemingly-immortal Windows XP), enterprise competition from Linux, and a serious mindshare challenge from a once-again resurgent Apple.
If there’s a silver lining to Gates departing Microsoft, it may be this: if the man is even half as good at running a philanthropic organization as he was at building the world’s most influential software company, he absolutely will change the world. And, this time, there will be little question that the changes are for the better.