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What Bill Gates' New Role Could Mean For Microsoft

As Satya Nadella becomes the new CEO of Microsoft, company founder Bill Gates is moving from chairman to "technology adviser."
Bebeto Matthews
As Satya Nadella becomes the new CEO of Microsoft, company founder Bill Gates is moving from chairman to "technology adviser."

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is stepping down as chairman of its board and into a new role, which the company is calling "technology adviser." The change comes as a new CEO — Satya Nadella — takes the helm. Gates says he will actually be spending a little more time at Microsoft. Microsoft watchers say if he manages his new role well, it will be good for the company.

Gates is certainly the visionary who turned Microsoft into a software juggernaut. Back in 1990, Gates told NPR that computers weren't quite ready for the home — at least not yet.

"A lot of people wouldn't have the time to learn how to use it," he said. But he also saw that in the near future computers would become easy to use and people would find them "as the medium they use to get information and to learn."

Gates was right on the money, and Microsoft's software 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 like Google Docs or Netflix. Microsoft's been playing catch-up.

Gates missed that boat. But in stepping down as chairman, he announced that he would be spending more time at the company as its technical adviser at Nadella's request.

In a video released by Microsoft, Gates said, "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."

It's not really clear just how involved Gates will be in shaping products. And given his track record of recent years it may not be the best role. Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research, thinks what Gates is really doing is helping to smooth the transition for the new CEO.

"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," Schadler says.

Schadler thinks the board picked Nadella to lead the company because he has been a leader at Microsoft in developing its cloud services, which is where the company needs to grow. Schadler says there is a risk in having Gates involved day to day: He could steal the limelight from Nadella.

"It would not create urgency around changing," Schadler says. "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.' "

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 has been deeply committed to education, health and alleviating global poverty. Merv Adrian, an analyst at Gartner, says Gates' 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.

"They need to use the cloud and their understanding of devices and their capabilities there to capture the next generation," Adrian says. "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."

The new CEO grew up in India, which may also help the company in what is a rapidly growing market. Though Nadella has been at Microsoft for over 20 years, he's never managed a company with over 100,000 people and such big challenges.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.