June 21, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Too many chefs in Microsoft's kitchen?
The company has chosen Ray Ozzie to fill the chief software architect role, while Craig Mundie will assume responsibility for research and policy matters. It also has a new internal online system aimed at tapping a broader pool of top minds to craft the company's technology strategy. And Gates himself plans to work part-time on a number of technology projects, though what those will be has yet to be settled.
All that raises the question of whether there will be too many chefs in Microsoft's kitchen.
"With Bill transferring out of that technical strategist role, how do these things get done?" said Rob Horwitz, CEO of analyst firm Directions on Microsoft.
By his nature and because of who he is, Gates has been the ultimate arbiter for technical debates at Microsoft. "When major product groups can't figure it out and can't agree on something, he is the ninth vote on the Supreme Court, and that is going to go away," Horwitz said.
Gartner analyst Michael Silver said it's not necessarily bad to give up that single authority figure.
"Having more opinions may be a good thing," Silver said. "One of the things Microsoft may need to get away from is being too closely associated with one person."
The challenge, Silver said, is ensuring that things don't become too encumbered. "You can't end up with too much of a bureaucracy, and you can't end up with an inability to make a decision," he said.
Silver pointed to times when it was Gates who stood up and said that something big was on the horizon and that the company needed to shift--such as when he sent out his "Internet tidal wave" memo a decade ago.
Giving up the reins
There is also the question of just how much ground Gates will cede to his handpicked successors. Longtime Gates associates doubt that the tech icon will step too far back.
"I remember when he got married," Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold, formerly a top Microsoft scientist, said last week. "People said, 'Oh, this will slow him down,' but it didn't."
Plus, he said, "part-time for Bill Gates is full-time for anyone else in this industry."
IDC analyst Al Gillen said he didn't see Gates retreating that much either. But he said that in order for Microsoft to move forward, Gates will have to cede some ground, particularly to the new software architecture head, Ozzie. "If Bill Gates wants Ray Ozzie to take that role, he really needs to step out of the way and take a different role himself," Gillen said. "Any manager needs to step back and give people they have empowered the flexibility to drive change."
That may be hard for Gates, who has championed some causes within the company that have proved difficult to achieve. "You could look at Microsoft and look at a number of projects that Bill is the flag carrier on," Silver said. "You have to wonder what the future is for those projects."
A clear effort that falls in that category is WinFS, the company's now-decade-old effort to improve the file system in Windows.
Gates himself seems to sense that this pet project may face a period of uncertainty, saying in an interview last week that he plans to lobby Ozzie hard to keep working with WinFS.
"I'm really going to infect Ray with my deep belief in unified storage, so that any hour I'm not here, he is carrying that torch," Gates told CNET News.com. "This is one that people like to give me a hard time about, because it's taken a long time, and some of the moves we've made in that direction have shown what a challenge it is. I still very, very much believe in that."
That said, Silver thinks the time might be right for someone to offer a counterargument. "At some point, you need someone to step back and say, maybe now is not the right time. Maybe Bill was a little too close to that," the Gartner analyst said.
Microsoft has been working away on WinFS, though it remains a thorny situation.
"I think WinFS is one of those examples where we clearly got ahead of ourselves," Server and Tools boss Bob Muglia said in an interview last week. "There's no ambiguity on that."
The technology itself will reach beta 2 this fall, but it's not yet clear when, or if, Windows will incorporate the technology. Muglia said some of the features of WinFS will show up first in SQL Server and that the company will take its time deciding where to go beyond that.
"The right way to build a technology like WinFS, and certainly the way we will do that in the future, is to spend a couple of years in incubation and gather some feedback," Muglia said.
As for Gates' overall plan to step back, Gillen said there are definitely benefits at this stage in Microsoft's life to handing over the technical reins, particularly to Ozzie.
"He probably is able to see the world a little more clearly from 'how the world is changing,' rather from (the standpoint of) 'how do we make our current portfolio thrive in the future?'" Gillen said.
CNET News.com's Joris Evers and Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.
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