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Charles Cooper

Five years ago this week, Bill Gates passed the CEO baton to Steve Ballmer.

Microsoft’s co-founder left the job he had held since 1975 to take on a new role as chief software architect. The idea was to free him up to concentrate full-time on new technology. The business was changing, and Microsoft, no longer a scrappy start-up, needed to chart new directions in the face of nascent challenges in the post-dot-com era.

It was a move that also offered Gates a golden opportunity to prove his critics wrong and show that he was every bit the technologist his resume claimed he was. To be sure, Microsoft has always been touchy about suggestions that it is less of a technology innovator than a technology follower.

Microsoft has always been touchy about suggestions that it is less of a technology innovator than a technology follower.

Few sane people would dispute the contention that Gates is the most successful business mogul of the last 50 years. But when it comes to rating his talent as a code jockey, will history render a similar judgment? Any time the subject is Gates, the debate is bound to turn radioactive. But passions aside, there’s now enough evidence with which to reach an interim opinion. Let’s consider the highlights.

Internet Explorer
After Microsoft bested Netscape during the Internet browser wars of the late 1990s, IE ruled the roost. With the game over, Microsoft also lost any incentive to make the product substantively better. And after the U.S. Department of Justice failed in its bid to break IE off of Windows, Microsoft had even less motivation to get cracking. But the technology business doesn’t stand still for long.

If Microsoft needed a wake-up call, the rapid emergence of Mozilla’s Firefox browser in 2004 was it. If Microsoft dawdles much longer, the number of users downloading IE alternatives in 2005 will turn into a stampede.

.Net My Services
I’ll bet a week’s wages that most folks have no idea what .Net My Services was supposed to be. Don’t feel too bad–neither did Microsoft. Originally code-named HailStorm, this was a grab bag of cool-sounding Internet-based services that Microsoft likened to a digital safe-deposit box to host personal information.

This was a complicated idea that was surrounded by confusion right from the get-go. Just as bad, Microsoft couldn’t figure out how to make it pay for itself. The project, slated to debut in 2002, has since been shelved.

When the historians take his measure, Gates may ultimately be remembered most for the impact of his philanthropy.

Microsoft originally planned to ship this next major version of Windows by 2004. Now the company says it will ship Longhorn sometime late in 2006. Even more embarrassing, Microsoft won’t be able to implement its highly touted WinFS file system with the release of the operating system.

The excuse being offered is that, well, Longhorn is complicated. Besides, Microsoft poured an enormous amount of resources into shipping its SP2 security patch. All that may be true, but it doesn’t change that fact that Microsoft let this project sprawl out of control. Meanwhile, the Macintosh operating system and Linux continue to advance apace.

Talk about a self-inflicted black eye. Microsoft took an eternity to figure out how to respond to the vulnerabilities in its software. But even after the release of SP2, problems continue to surface. All this raises inevitable questions about process and oversight. How can a company look a customer in the eye if it can’t vouch for the security of its products? Microsoft’s glass half-full argument that things are far better still doesn’t cut it.

Years after Google soared to supremacy, Microsoft now has a beta version of the Web search technology it will ultimately offer–sometime. Gates promised that Microsoft would have something ready by the end of 2004, but the world is still waiting to see the beef. Even when it comes to desktop search, terrain where Microsoft should dominate, Google’s out ahead.

When the historians take his measure, Gates may ultimately be remembered most for the importance of his philanthropy. Considering the impact of what he’s doing in the sphere of disease prevention through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, there’s clearly a case to be made.

But when it comes to his talent as a technologist, the track record tells a different story. It is beyond contestation that a lesser mortal would have been sent packing long ago.