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"Change is the only constant" is a favorite clich� among technology types. But for an industry that loves to talk about change, its leading lights don't do too much of it, at least not when it comes to turning over control of their companies. Apple, Dell, Microsoft and Oracle are all run by the guys who founded them back in the 1970s and 1980s.
But soon those leaders will move on. First to go is Bill Gates, who on June 27 steps aside at Microsoft. Next, I'd wager, will be Steve Jobs, for health reasons. Jobs, 53, underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004 and lately has been looking frightfully gaunt. Apple PR folks claim he's fine. Problem is, Apple PR is known for having a Clintonesque relationship to the truth. If Jobs is still running Apple at year end, I'll be shocked.
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Also headed for the exits will be Larry Ellison at Oracle. Ellison claims to be 63 years old but is barely aging (I secretly believe he's several hundred years old, and a vampire) and these days he seems more passionate about sailboat racing than about schlepping database software. My guess is Ellison will acquire software maker Salesforce.com and replace himself with its 43-year-old founder and chief executive Marc Benioff, a former marketing whiz at Oracle.
Microsoft's uncertain future
These looming handoffs will have mixed effects. For Apple, expect a 30 per cent drop in the stock price on the day the news breaks, followed by a period of disarray and confusion. Apple has a strong management team. These guys (and yes, they're all guys) are smart and experienced. But Apple has recklessly avoided setting in place a succession plan. Who will take over? Timothy Cook, the chief operating officer, who ran the company when Jobs was on sick leave in 2004? Jon Ive, the head of design? Both are bright. But Steve Jobs is beyond bright. He's one of a kind. The sad truth is this: Without Jobs, Apple will never be the same.
For Microsoft the loss of Gates won't be nearly as profound. Gates narrowed his involvement at the company eight years ago when he gave the chief executive job to his college buddy and right-hand man Steve Ballmer. The reality of the last few years is that Gates has been mentally checked out, pursuing loftier goals at his foundation.
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Under Ballmer, Microsoft is enduring one of the worst times in its history. The stock has been flat. Vista, the latest version of Windows, has been such a disastrous technical flop that Microsofties themselves have coined a new word for it: "Vistaster."
Ballmer's recent failed attempt to acquire Yahoo! ended up making Microsoft look even more clumsy, weak and ridiculous. Twenty years ago Microsoft's young turks loved to mock the clueless old back-slappers who ran IBM. Today upstarts see Microsoft as a sad old bully that makes lousy software.
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Considering how bad things have been lately, you might almost argue that Gates' departure could be a boon, a chance for some fresh thinking. Except look who he's left in charge. Ballmer is smart and relentless, but he's no techie. And he's 52 years old. Ray Ozzie, who replaced Gates as chief software architect, is also 52. He began his career at Data General. Remember them? They vanished a decade ago. Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, is 59 and also started out at Data General--in 1970. That's the year the Beatles broke up and Jimi Hendrix died. Microsoft's three top guys came of age in an era when the Internet was called the ARPANET and the personal computer had not yet been invented.
Microsoft's PR spinners point out that other key players are younger. But come on. Kevin Johnson, the guy running Microsoft's Internet efforts, is 47 years old, has been with Microsoft since 1992, has a background in sales and used to work at IBM. He also oversees Vista. Ahem. Robert Bach, president of the Xbox and Zune division, is 46 and has been at Microsoft since 1988. Stephen Elop, president of the Office applications group, is 44 and joined Microsoft this year. Kevin Turner, chief operating officer, age 43, spent 20 years at Wal-Mart.
Smart guys. Great guys. But not a pack of wild-eyed visionaries operating at Internet speed. Take a look at that photo of Gates and his crew circa 1976, looking like the Manson Family. Those are the kind of crazies who change the world.
Sure, Microsoft will participate in the Internet revolution, just as IBM played a role in the PC revolution. But IBM ultimately abandoned PCs and now chugs along on its mainframe franchise and services business. Not exciting, but not a bad business, either.
I think Microsoft will play defense from here on out. Its army of MBAs will milk the monstrous franchise around Windows and Office for all it's worth and try to cushion its decline and create a soft landing.
That's what the future looks like for Microsoft: lucrative, profitable and boring. No doubt Bill Gates realizes this. And that, I suspect, is why he's checking out.
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