Meet the next CEO of Microsoft: Bill Gates

There are not many people who step down from a major role to spend more time with a company. But then Bill Gates is, or was, no ordinary company chairman.

Many commentators claim that by resigning as chairman, Gates has given the new CEO, Satya Nadella, more room to breathe. I’m not buying that. If Gates truly wanted to give Nadella the space to reorganise Microsoft free from interference, he could have taken a non-executive role on the board and gone to spend more time with his charity.

Instead, I suspect Gates is positioning himself for a Jobs-like second coming.

That way Gates gets his foot back in the door, John Thompson gets a nice promotion to chairman of the board, and Microsoft gets a new CEO who won’t the rock the boat too violently

The timing wasn’t right for him to return as CEO this time round – he’s spent the past six years away from the day-to-day running of the company, and it would simply have looked bad if he’d swooped back in to replace his old pal, Ballmer. What’s more, it wouldn’t have given the more vocal Microsoft shareholders the change they’ve been agitating for.

This way, however, he returns to the pivotal role of deciding which products get to leave the building, and which get buried after an avalanche of invective is blasted at the poor product manager who didn’t meet his notoriously high standards. Then, in a couple of years’ time, if Nadella is deemed to be underperforming as CEO, Gates isn’t in the awkward position of being the man who has to wield the knife. He can emerge as the returning hero without first having to yank the dagger from Nadella’s back.

The way in which Gates’ return was handled was also telling. If the official version of events is to be believed, Nadella “invited” Gates to spend more time with the company, working on product development. If that is true, when was such a move first mooted? In the job interviews, when Gates himself was on the committee to appoint the new CEO? That smacks a little of leaving an apple on sir’s desk, but flattering a key member – perhaps the key member – of the committee is a pretty smart way of securing the job.

Or was, as seems more likely to me, Nadella offered the job on condition that he works alongside Gates on product development. After all, Nadella has no real experience of managing consumer products such as Xbox, Surface or, arguably, even Windows itself. That way Gates gets his foot back in the door, John Thompson gets a nice promotion to chairman of the board, and Microsoft gets a new CEO who won’t the rock the boat too violently.

Either way, Gates is back at the heart of Microsoft, and my genuine belief is that Nadella now effectively becomes an interim CEO, carrying out the strategy that Ballmer laid down in the summer, until Gates is ready to reassume full control. It’s called One Microsoft, and it only ends one way: with Bill back at the helm.

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