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Perhaps no one knows precisely why Bill Gates chose June 15 to announce to the world that he would give up his day-to-day involvement at Microsoft (MSFT) over the next two years (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/16/06, "Bill Gates's Long Goodbye"). Or at least no one other than Gates and his wife Melinda. Yet Paul Saffo, director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., can almost visualize the moment. "I think he looked in the mirror one day and said, 'You're fired,'" says Saffo.
Hotly debated over the past few years is whether Microsoft is a mature company, with few growth prospects left. What's indisputable is that the software giant is on the decline in terms of power, if not profits, as numerous upstarts, led by Google (GOOG), have proven themselves more nimble and innovative in taking advantage of the Internet. And over the past six difficult years, it's been Gates who has had the role of technical architect for the company's many products. So Gates' decision to leave Microsoft does more than vacate his posts at the software company. It also serves as public notice that the position at the center of the tech industry that Gates and Microsoft have occupied for decades is up for grabs.
There may be more than one. As the PC era gives way to the Internet Age, a number of stalwarts are struggling to make the leap. At chipmaker Intel (INTC), where co-founder Andy Grove gave up his post as chairman last year, the company has lost its unquestioned position of dominance under a fierce assault from rival Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). In the wake of Michael Dell's decision to cede the chief executive title at computer maker Dell (DELL), the company has struggled mightily. Steve Jobs at Apple (AAPL) is one of a few industry veterans who continues to adapt and thrive.
Who will step up to be the industry's next king—or queen? Who will be able to drive the development of new technologies in such dramatic ways that he or she leads the way for the rest of the top companies? Someone at one of the existing giants? At a startup no one has yet heard of? Or perhaps it will be a disheveled twentysomething now spending long, caffeinated hours writing code in a dorm room in Boston or Bangalore.
The spotlight will be on a number of emerging players over the coming years, to see who will step forward and claim the crown. At the top of the list of candidates are an obvious few: Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google; Linus Torvalds, who heads development of the Linux operating systems; Marc Benioff at Salesforce.com (CRM); and even Ray Ozzie, who is taking over Gates’ job as chief software architect at Microsoft and has been instrumental in prodding Microsoft to make some of its software available online (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/16/06, "See What Ray Ozzie Can Do For Microsoft").
"I'd put Google well in front of the others," says analyst Safa Rashtchy of Piper Jaffray.
There's little doubt about the ambition of Page and Brin. While their search engine has become a money machine, they're moving far beyond the search word advertising business, introducing a new initiative nearly every week. One move this month was to unveil a free online spreadsheet that competes directly with Microsoft's Excel, part of an ongoing effort to systematically knock down the pillars of Microsoft's business (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/11/06, "Google's Desktop Offensive").
Will Google assume the mantle of leadership from Microsoft the way the software giant took over from IBM (IBM)? Perhaps. But even if Page and Brin live up to the great expectations for their company, the nature of Google's power is fundamentally different than that of Microsoft. Gates succeeded through Microsoft's tight control of the PC, by locking in customers and suppliers that needed its software. Google has no comparable lock. It operates in the wide-open world of the Internet, where people can find an alternative search engine or spreadsheet or video with the click of a mouse. "Google won't have the dominance that Microsoft had," says Saffo. "They can't. They have an open platform, and that's fundamentally different from what Microsoft did. That's the only way you can do it these days. You have to let other companies in."
Indeed, the nature of power in the technology biz is changing. The ubiquity of the Internet means that there is more potential in reaching out to other companies and individuals than there is for a company operating on its own (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/20/05, "The Power of Us"). "The way you get big now is by empowering the small," says Saffo. " Google does it. They empower all of us to search."
This opens up opportunity for a new kind of tech leader. Pierre Omidyar founded eBay (EBAY) with the idea that anyone, anywhere, could auction off almost anything on its auction site, and Niklas Zennstrom has carried the idea further with the Net telephone service Skype, which eBay purchased last year for $2.6 billion. The other potential tech titans in the business of empowering others include Jonathan Schwartz, the newly appointed chief executive at Sun Microsystems (SUNW), and Charlie Giancarlo, the chief development officer at Cisco Systems (CSCO) and a potential successor to CEO John Chambers.
These are all leading luminaries in Silicon Valley. Still, the next tech king may come from someplace completely unexpected. For instance, while Paul Otellini, chief executive of Intel in Santa Clara, Calif., may still be best positioned to lead the way in the semiconductor industry, there are opportunities for people like Paul Jacobs, chief executive of Qualcomm (QCOM) in San Diego to become preeminent. Qualcomm makes the chips for wireless phones and has been pushing the cell phone as a means to do everything from surfing the Web to watching television broadcasts.
Jacobs may have the numbers on his side. Some 600 million cell phones are expected to be sold this year, or roughly three times the number of PCs. One of Jacobs' favorite pronouncements? "The wireless Internet will have a greater impact on the world than the wired Internet."
Even farther afield are the entrepreneurs of developing countries, including China and India. Up-and-comers there have the advantages of huge domestic markets and a proximity to a new crop of tech customers. It could be a significant edge. The most popular search engine in China is not Google or Yahoo, despite the American companies' concerted efforts. Rather, it's Baidu (BIDU), a company founded by Robin Li that went public last year. The top online auction site is not run by eBay, but by Alibaba, a Chinese company founded by Jack Ma that has also taken over the operations of Yahoo (YHOO) in that country (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/3/06, "See Holding a Behemoth at Bay").
In the end, there may not be only one or two leaders who step to the forefront of the industry. As technology has changed, so too, has the structure of the business behind it. The industry may never again be dominated by the likes of a Bill Gates or an Andy Grove, because it has grown so big, so diverse, and so international. "We're not talking about a replacement for Bill Gates," says Rashtchy. "This is going to be a much more diverse group." Kevin Werbach, a technology analyst and consultant, agrees. "It will be different," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "No one in this next generation was " present at the creation" of the personal computer industry in the '70s, the way Jobs, Gates, [Oracle (ORCL) CEO Larry] Ellison, Grove, etc. were."