There’s only one guy in the world who should be running Microsoft right now. Everyone knows his name (rhymes with Gill Bates), and everyone knows why he’d be perfect. Microsoft’s problem isn’t that it doesn’t make money—it does, gobs of it, every quarter, like clockwork. (Microsoft’s latest earnings report, issued in July, was universally described as “disastrous” because the company made only $5 billion in profit.) Microsoft’s problem is not that it doesn’t make products that the world isn’t using widely. Windows 8, its latest operating system, has been selling at a rate of 10 million licenses a month. That’s not as good as some of its earlier versions of Windows, but it’s better than almost any other tech product in the world.
In other words, Microsoft’s problem isn’t the present. It’s the future—and the path from here to there. And nobody is better suited to navigating that path than Bill Gates. Thirty years ago, Gates set forth an almost unimaginably bold goal for his tiny software company—“a computer on every desk and in every home.” You can quibble with the way he achieved this—monopolistically, uncreatively—but you can’t argue with the results. Windows crossed 1 billion users a few years ago, and now it has around 1.25 billion active users—more than any other computing platform anywhere. Gates managed this feat through force of will. Because he was the company’s founder and—by all accounts—a hard-ass who sweated the details, Gates managed to stifle the in-fighting and bureaucracy that ordinarily consumes big firms (and that has been endemic at Microsoft for at least a dozen years). Under Gates, everyone at Microsoft knew what his or her purpose was when they went into work every morning—and, miraculously, they achieved that mission.
Now what? Microsoft won the big game, and then, as happens in this business, the game changed. For the last decade under Steve Ballmer, Microsoft has been richocheting from one goal to another—from making music players to tablets to touchscreen mobile OSes to search engines to cloud servers to video games. A couple of these initiatives succeeded commercially, and some of them have been critically acclaimed flops. (I’m a big fan of Windows Phone, but its market share is way behind that of Apple's iOS and Google's Android.) Overall, though, the company’s actions have been scattershot. Microsoft hasn’t advocated an overarching vision for the future, or any goal on the order of Gates’ PC-on-every-desk plan. It’s a deficit felt both by the people who work there and, more importantly, the potential customers it wants to attract. To the world, Microsoft has become a generic tech firm—a cold, anodyne name selling slightly interesting widgets based on innovations other people put out years before.
Bill Gates isn’t coming back to Microsoft. He has said so a million times, and—given that he’s now doing something much better for the world—it wouldn’t be a net positive for humanity. So I’ll waste just a single paragraph explaining why he’d be perfect. There are lots of bold thinkers in the tech industry who could outline a new, daring goal for Microsoft—say, that it should abandon Windows in favor of making a new cloud-based operating system that stores all your data online. But the firm’s legendary inertia would stymie many of them. At Microsoft, Windows is inviolable. This is a company that slaps the Office and Windows brand on everything it does (even Microsoft’s user interfaces that have no “windows,” like the one on its phone, are called Windows), and where anything that might detract from these cash cows is killed before it’s released. Given all the money they make, sticking with Windows and Office has long seemed a reasonable strategy, one that Gates himself has advocated throughout the company’s history. (A business professor might say that Microsoft is trapped in the classic innovator’s dilemma.) But this tension illustrates precisely why Gates would be so effective. Only he has the institutional authority to liberate Microsoft from the Windows/Office golden noose. Only he could outline some new plan for the firm and command the troops to get in line.
If Gates isn’t going to do it, it now falls to him—as the most important member of Microsoft’s board—to find the second-best person to head the company in the wake of Ballmer’s announcement that he’ll be stepping down as CEO. He could choose one of the firm’s insiders, like Terry Myerson, who heads Microsoft’s OS division, or Julie Larson-Green, who runs the hardware and games business. Suggestions for outsiders who could run Microsoft range from the inspired but unlikely—Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg—to the nuts: ousted Apple mobile software chief Scott Forstall.
My own favorite idea—first advocated by Sulia CEO Jonathan Glick—is Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO. Weiner has been a standout executive, pushing the business-oriented social network to routinely top analysts’ financial expectations and, thus, helping its stock price soar. More importantly, though, Weiner has skillfully navigated LinkedIn around several obvious strategic hurdles—why use it when we have Facebook and Twitter? He’s done so by focusing on the long term, even going so far as to schedule 90 minutes a day of doing “nothing” into his calendar in order to force himself to think. That’s exactly the kind of vision Microsoft needs—and, if Gates comes out strongly in favor of this sort of CEO, he might even bring a grand new idea to fruition.
There are loads of problems in the tech world that no one else is solving. We’re getting dozens of new sensor-based devices—activity trackers, digital bathroom scales, home thermostats, smart spectacles—and there’s no good computing platform to connect all of them into a seamless experience. Everyone’s personal media—photos, videos, music—is scattered across loads of devices and services, and it’s still too hard to get everything in one place. Both at home and at work, securing your data from thieves or other calamities is still a huge hassle—and the world is waiting for the company to make security painless and easy. That’s true of privacy, too.
Microsoft’s next leader could choose to focus the company on fixing one of these problems, or he or she could pick something entirely different. But please, just choose something big. Microsoft is a huge untapped reservoir of money and talent. It could do great things, if it had a leader who gave it half a chance.