Gates to retire in 2008, Ozzie becomes Microsoft Chief Software Architect

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Gates to retire in 2008, Ozzie becomes Microsoft Chief Software Architect

Redmond (WA) – In a well-timed move that completely threw off journalists covering the Microsoft TechEd 2006 conference in Boston, Chairman Bill Gates told a Web conference this afternoon he is transitioning away from his day-to-day role at Microsoft, and has handed his Chief Software Architect role over to current CTO Ray Ozzie. Steve Ballmer is expected to remain CEO, and Gates will remain Chairman.

In a statement this afternoon, the company said Gates’ intention was to join his wife, Melinda, in furthering his efforts on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has in recent years become perhaps history’s most benevolent charitable organization. Today’s statement gives indications that this transition plan has already been in the works for some time, dating back to September 2005 and the beginning of a series of mid- to high-level executive transitions following the hiring of former Lotus and Groove Networks executive Ray Ozzie as Chief Technology Officer.

As part of a two-year transition plan, during which Gates’ responsibilities will continue to be gradually phased out, current co-CTO Craig Mundie will move into an elevated role currently described as “chief research and strategy officer,” who will handle the company’s “incubation projects,” which presumably includes Blackcomb, the generation of Windows to succeed Vista and Longhorn.

Journalists covering TechEd in Boston noted the curious placement of a quote from Dr. James I. Cash, Ph.D, who is a member of Microsoft’s Board of Directors: “This is a very sensible and thorough approach. A two-year transition will ensure that the company has a smooth transfer of strategy and knowledge from Bill to the next generation of leaders.” Some here noted Gates’ recent sale of large quantities of shares in Microsoft stock, which were noted by a financial analyst here as recently as Tuesday. While it is no longer considered mandatory that the chairman of a company necessarily be its largest shareholder at all times (witness the case of former Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner in the 1990s), there seems to be a lingering question: Is this it?

By all measures, Gates is still a young man to be retiring – only 50 – but his personal impact on the history of the world will place him among the most influential handful of people to emerge from the 20th century. Meanwhile, his replacement as Chief Software Architect, Ray Ozzie, may have some catching up to do, as his performance in the role Gates warmed up for him – handling the keynote speech at a major Microsoft conference – was widely panned by not only the press but by TechEd attendees with whom we’ve spoken, some of whom believed Ozzie’s commentary was vague, a little self-indulgent, and light on pertinent detail. While Ozzie will not be running Microsoft – Ballmer is expected to retain day-to-day control – his public profile will evidently continue to be elevated, as Microsoft seeks to maintain its public persona.

We may be seeing the last of the Gates keynotes, which were becoming as famous as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s periodic testimonies before Congress.