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Monday, April 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Inside look at business of technology

Seattle Times staff columnist

After five years on the Microsoft beat, I was reluctant to stop chasing Bill Gates and start writing a column.

Fortunately, Gates came through as I was trying to decide where to start.

I'm writing the column to help people better understand the technology business and how it affects them. I'll be taking a closer look at people, products and issues at Microsoft, its competitors and other Northwest tech companies.

I'll also weigh in on stories the industry tends to obsess over, like the pedigree of Google's cafeteria chef.

Or when Gates will start shifting more of his attention from software development to charity work, increasing his involvement with the $29 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation he and his wife started in 2002.

An announcement from the foundation last week made me think that process is under way.

Nobody is saying that Gates is ready to give up his title as chief software architect at the company he and Paul Allen started 31 years ago, especially now, while it's trying to finish a line of major new products. But don't be surprised if his transition to philanthropist happens sooner than expected.

The foundation on Wednesday described a sweeping, Microsoft-style reorganization that set Gates up to focus more on its strategy. Almost in passing, it noted that Gates, his wife and his father "will continue and likely increase their engagement in shaping foundation strategies, reviewing results, and supporting advocacy efforts."

A spokeswoman acknowledged that Gates, 50, is taking on a higher profile in foundation issues, including education. But she denied that he's cutting back on the "full-time job at Microsoft he is intensely interested in and devoted to."

Maybe not yet, but pieces that would enable a transition are falling into place.

In late 2002, Gates told me that he would retire within a decade, after helping find the next person in charge of setting Microsoft's "technical direction."

"You know, it's one of those complicated things where you want the new person to have all the authority and autonomy and yet you want to help them out," he said then.

A big change happened in 2000 when Gates handed day-to-day management of the company over to his friend and chief lieutenant, Steve Ballmer.

That's when Gates became chief software architect, as well as chairman, and Ballmer became chief executive.

Together they've since groomed a stable of potential successors, several of whom were recently moved into key leadership positions.

One is programming guru Ray Ozzie, brought aboard a year ago as chief technical officer and adviser to Gates on communication technology.

In September, Ozzie was assigned to oversee the development of online services in all three of Microsoft's operating divisions. Services are now the major focus of Microsoft and much of the software industry.

Gates also passed a baton to Ozzie in November for the company's latest big strategy memo.

Every few years Gates has issued one of these memos to reset the company and clarify its top priorities. The most famous was the 1995 "Internet tidal wave" memo that focused the company on the Internet.

A 2002 memo on "trustworthy computing" turned the emphasis to security and product reliability.

When the November memo came out, rallying the troops around online services, Gates wrote only a short introduction to a memo from Ozzie, "which I feel sure we will look back on as being as critical as The Internet Tidal Wave memo was when it came out."

At the time, Microsoft was struggling to finish Windows Vista, the next version of its flagship operating system. Concerns about delays and its development led to a shake-up in the Windows group that began in September and was completed last month.

The biggest change: the assignment of Steven Sinofsky, another programming whiz and former Gates technical adviser, to lead development of future Windows versions.

Several longtime Microsoft observers told me then that the company has grown too big and complex to have a single chief software architect, especially one so devoted to his family and philanthropy.

"I do not believe the Windows group as it currently stands and behaves in the last several years is really under his management — he's not the kind of person to tolerate this chaos and complexity," said Michael Cusumano, an Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who has studied Microsoft for years.

While the Windows group was being sorted out by new Windows division Co-President Kevin Johnson, Gates was getting more attention regarding the foundation.

In October, The New Yorker magazine profiled him and the foundation's efforts toward a malaria vaccine. In December, Time magazine named Gates, his wife and rock star Bono "persons of the year" for their global health and poverty work. Then last week, Gates and Melinda were on "Oprah," calling for education reform.

Gates is becoming more vocal on foundation issues and Wednesday's reorganization will enable him to focus more on the foundation strategy, spokeswoman Monica Harrington said.

"I think what we're talking about is not an increase in time overall but shifting the emphasis," she said. "This is not signaling any shift in how Bill spends his time."

I tried asking Gates directly about the status of his transition plans, but he was unavailable Friday.

It's an open question that I'll probably revisit in this column, which will run Mondays in the Business/Technology section. An accompanying Web log, or blog, will appear throughout the week at seattletimes.com.

Other topics could include who will take Gates' place when he eventually retires; what Google is up to with its new calendar service; when to buy a Windows Vista PC; where outsourcing is headed; why Apple Computer is helping people load Windows onto Mac computers; and how to get the best deal on broadband Internet access.

I'll let you know if I hear back from Gates.

Brier Dudley's technology column appears Monday in the Business/Technology section. Through the week, he writes a blog at www.seattletimes.com/brierdudleysblog. He can be reached at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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