Microsoft Reaches a Sustainability Milestone, Life after Bill Gates

When I went to Microsoft in 1992, I told many stories of what the difference is between working at Apple and Microsoft. I’ve had the interesting experience of twice being escorted out of my employer as I went to a competing company.  Yes, when I left HP to go to Apple, within hours of telling them I was going to Apple, security was supervising the packing of my desk. I didn’t realize I was working on something so competitive. When I made my announcement to go from Apple to Microsoft, I was ready to be escorted out the door.

Working at great companies like HP, Apple, and Microsoft, there is an interesting transition they have.  How do they survive after their founders move on? HP made the transition beyond David Packard and Bill Hewlett. Apple’s John Sculley kicked Steve Jobs out, but Steve is back. And, whether Apple will survive beyond Steve Jobs is highly debated. A Barron’s article puts things in perspective.

But what really worries me is the factor that pressured the stock last week: concern about the health of Steve Jobs. More than any other company, Apple is viewed as a creation of its CEO; it's a cult of personality. And, as I noted on my blog last week, many attendees at the developer conference's keynote-address session were taken aback by Jobs' gaunt appearance.

Remember, Jobs just a few years ago received surgical treatment for a rare form of pancreatic cancer. And Apple didn't disclose the situation until months after he had become ill. Last week, in response to press inquiries, it said that its leader recently had a "common bug," which was treated with antibiotics. It wouldn't comment on speculation that he's had a relapse.

While I understand the company's reluctance to respond to rumors -- once you respond to one, it is hard to stop responding -- there's nothing more material to Apple shareholders than the status of its legendary chief's health. I have no idea if the aforementioned bug was the only reason for his ultra-thin appearance, and I hope there's nothing to the rumors.

Nonetheless, even if based on untrue information, last week's selloff was a dry run for the selling that would be triggered if Jobs actually did suffer a relapse. So while I think the iPhone 3G is going to be a big hit, and should boost corporate profits, just realize that there's at least one factor that not even Steve can control.

Bill Gates has reached the point where he is saying good bye to his job at Microsoft.  And, it is news coverage people are competing for to cover. It’s probably bigger news than any Window launch except Win95. Newsweek’s Steven Levy has an article.

In some respects, this week won't be terribly different for Bill Gates than the previous 1,712 weeks he has spent working full-time at Microsoft, the company he co-founded as a teenager. The 52-year-old icon has some one-on-one meetings scheduled with a few of his top technical executives. He has some customer meetings. And, as often happens, he'll go to the television studio on Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus to tape a few messages for events he won't be able to attend. In addition, he says, "I hope to write a few memos."

But normalcy will be an illusion. Everybody knows that when the week ends, Bill Gates will walk out of his office for the last time as someone on the clock for Microsoft. (On that final day, the routine will be shredded, and the staff has planned some internal commemorative events.) He'll take a break this summer (including a sojourn to the Beijing Olympics), and beginning in September the new focus of his work life will be the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the organization he began with his wife in 2000. With a current $37.3 billion endowment, it's the world's richest philanthropic institution.

Paul Allen gives words of advice in the Newsweek article.

Treading on uncertain ground like that underlines the difficulties Gates may face in leaving the job he has loved so much. "It may be more of a change than he thinks," says Paul Allen, recalling his own departure from Microsoft in 1983. "You don't always realize how dramatic that transition is going to be when people aren't depending on your decisions day by day."

Microsoft’s transition to life without Bill is a new test in sustainability for the company. Can Microsoft make the transition successfully to life beyond its founder? 

Apple’s transition to life after Steve Jobs has massive risks. When Apple tried to survive after Steve Jobs, Apple needed Steve to come back and rescue the company.  Would Bill come back to Microsoft if it meant saving the company? Without a doubt, but that’s not a sustainable strategy.