A Chat With Bill Gates, The New Guy In Product Development

After 25 years as CEO, he takes on a fresh assignment

Can Bill Gates really give up the thrill of plotting strategy in the corner office and find true happiness as chief software architect back in Microsoft Corp.'s technology lab? After a surprise announcement on Jan. 13 that he will hand over the CEO job to Steve Ballmer and supervise development of Windows for the Web operating systems, the 44-year-old entrepreneur chatted with Seattle correspondent Jay Greene.

Q: Is it easy to give up being the final decision maker?

A: If this was some outsider coming in, I'm sure there would be some concern on my part. Since it's Steve, I have no concern. Steve and I have gone through some of the great challenges, great successes, great failures. I do think that my being able to go home at night and mostly worry about product strategy and not quite as much about profit-and- loss statements and organizational issues is going to be great for me and the company.

Q: Turning over the CEO duties is giving up something that's defined your business life for 25 years.

A: That's true, and you know, 25 years is a long time. I feel good about what I did, and I feel good that I have somebody of Steve's strength to turn it over to. I would say that the company faces more challenges in the years ahead than in any of the years I ran the company.

Q: By stepping down as CEO, do you feel you'll be less of a personal target for the Justice Dept. and competitors?

A: It's not as though I'm going to be an invisible person. Steve's visibility will go up. But as we talk about that lawsuit, I will be very involved in that. The irony [is] having the most intense competition--the most new startups and high-valuation competitors that we've ever had--and at the same time having someone say that we're a monopoly. If you weren't so close to it, you'd know to laugh.

Q: You seemed very at ease when you made the announcement.

A: I'm very happy about it, and it's a great thing. It's also a tiny bit of a milestone to look back over the last 25 years and see how much fun it has been, how lucky I've been, the impact the company has had on this country, the success. When Paul Allen and I were talking about it this week, [we talked] about our original dreams and goals and aspirations and how much it has been a complete fulfillment of the dreams we had.

Q: How much time had you already been spending on product development?

A: The goal that I've always had is to spend more than half my time on product-related things. That had fallen probably below 40%, and a small amount makes a big difference.

Q: So how much of your time will be spent on development in your new role?

A: It's certainly over 75%. It even influences the speeches I will give outside. Almost all the speeches outside now will be about the new platform. What I talk to the board about will be coming out of that role. When I go to see partners, it'll be the one that could affect the software strategy.

Q: What types of things will drop off your schedule?

A: The amount of speaking will go down. The amount of international travel will drop. I'll still go to Asia and see the key partners there and still go to Europe once a year. But the agendas that I have there will be a fair bit different. I'll be in a lot less business reviews. I'll be in a lot less marketing reviews. I'll spend a lot more time with the people in the product groups, talking.

Q: Is there anything wrong with the pace of innovation at Microsoft that requires you to make this move?

A: When we look back on Windows 2000, we're incredibly proud of its reliability and the features. We wish we had it in the marketplace a year earlier. Some of the uncertainty up front about what was in the product, what was not in it--those are things that I think we could save time by doing better next round.

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