The Industry


Bill Gates is stepping into a new role with the revolutionary company he co-founded. He's passing off his position as chairman of Microsoft to become a technology advisor. Gates says the new job will require him to spend more of his time at the company. The change is happening as a new CEO, Satya Nadella, takes over at Microsoft.

NPR's Laura Sydell has been talking with some Microsoft watchers about the shakeup.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Back in 1990, when computers were still used largely at work, Bill Gates told NPR that computers weren't quite ready for the home yet.

BILL GATES: A lot of people wouldn't have the time to learn how to use it. Now, eventually, we'll build a machine that I think the time will be very low and people will find it as the medium they use to get information and to learn.

SYDELL: Gates was right on the money and he turned Microsoft into the software giant that navigated most of our PCs for over a decade. But Gates had a PC-centric vision of the future. He was slow to see the Internet coming. He couldn't imagine that people would bypass the computer for services that live online or in the cloud, say, like Google Docs or Netflix. The company's been playing catch-up.

Despite missing that boat, in stepping down as board chair at Microsoft, Gates announced that he'd be spending more time at the company as its technical adviser at the request of the new CEO, Satya Nadella.

GATES: I'm thrilled that Satya has asked me to step up, substantially increasing the time that I spend at the company. I'll have over a third of my time available to meet with product groups and it'll be fun to define this next round of products.

SYDELL: But just how involved Gates will be in shaping products is unclear. Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester, thinks what's really going on here is that Gates is helping to smooth the transition for the new CEO.

TED SCHADLER: And so you start to think of Bill Gates as a coach, as a mentor, as somebody who is willing to step out of the limelight but be present in helping the new CEO get his feet under him and get things done.

SYDELL: Schadler thinks the board picked Nadella to lead the company because he's been a leader at Microsoft in developing its online or cloud services, which is where the company needs to grow. Schadler thinks the one risk of having Gates involved day to day is that he steals the limelight from Nadella.

SCHADLER: It would not create urgency around changing. So if you're an employee of Microsoft, you need to change. And if Bill Gates was still seen as calling the shots, then you might think, well, I don't have to change really. We can just kind of keep going the way we're going.

SYDELL: But Gates is still not spending most of his time at Microsoft. He's the founder of another entity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he's been deeply committed to education, health, and alleviating global poverty. Merv Adrian, an analyst at Gartner, thinks his work at the foundation might actually help him be a good adviser for Microsoft's future. There are enormous opportunities for technology in the developing world.

MERV ADRIAN: They need to use the cloud and their understanding of devices and their capabilities there to capture the next generation, to be involved in education globally, to help bring technology to places where it isn't so present because that's where our workers are going to come from globally.

SYDELL: The new CEO grew up in India, which may also help the company in what is a rapidly growing market. And Nadella actually asked Gates to stick around. Though he has been at Microsoft for over 20 years, Nadella's never managed a company with over 100,000 people and such big challenges. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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