(image) This story reporting that Gates will return to Microsoft “one day a week” to focus on “product” has been lighting up the news this week. But while the idea of a founder returning to the mothership resonates widely in our industry (Jobs at Apple, Dorsey at Twitter), in Gates’ case I don’t think it makes much sense.
It’s no secret in our industry that Microsoft has struggled when it comes to product. It’s a very distant third in mobile (even though folks praise its offerings), its search engine Bing has struggled to win share against Google despite billions invested, and the same is true for Surface, which is well done but selling about one tablet for every 26 or so iPads (and that’s not counting Android). And then there’s past history – you know, when Gates was far more involved: the Zune (crushed by the iPod), that smart watch (way too early), and oh Lord, remember Clippy and Bob?
If anything, what Gates brought to the product party over the past two decades was a sense of what was going to be possible, rather than what is going to work right now. He’s been absolutely right on the trends, but wrong on the execution against those trends. And while his gravitas and brand would certainly help rally the troops in Redmond, counting on him to actually create product sounds like grasping at straws, and ultimately would prove a huge distraction.
Not to mention, a return to an active role at Microsoft would be a bad move for Gates’ personal brand, which along with Bill Clinton, is one of the most remarkable transformation stories of our era. Lest we forget, Gates was perhaps the most demonized figure of our industry, pilloried and humbled by the US Justice Department and widely ostracized as a unethical, colleague-berating monopolist. The most famous corporate motto of our time – “Don’t be evil” – can thank Microsoft for its early resonance. In its formative years, Google was fervently anti-Microsoft, and it made hay on that positioning.
Bill Gates has become the patron saint of philanthropy and the poster child of rebirth, and from what I can tell, rightly so. Why tarnish that extraordinary legacy by coming back to Microsoft at this late date? Working one day a week at a company famous for its bureaucracy won’t change things much, and might in fact make things worse – if the product teams at Microsoft spend their time trying to get Gates’ blessing instead of creating product/market fit, that’s just adding unnecessary distraction in a market that rewards focus and execution.
If Gates really wants to make an impact at Microsoft, he’d have to throw himself entirely back into the company, focusing the majority of his intellect and passion on the company he founded nearly 40 years ago. And I’m guessing he doesn’t want to do that – it’s just too big a risk, and it’d mean he’d have to shift his focus from saving millions of lives to beating Google, Apple, and Samsung at making software and devices. That doesn’t sound like a very good trade.