The end of an era for the world’s largest software company is approaching: Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates said on June 15 that he will transition from day-to-day responsibilities at the company to concentrate on the charitable work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Education leaders who spoke with eSchool News said Microsoft’s loss could be education’s gain, as Gates focuses more personal attention on school reform and other funding initiatives.

Gates said he would continue as Microsoft’s chairman after transferring his duties over a two-year period.

“This was a hard decision for me,” said Gates, who founded Microsoft with childhood friend Paul Allen. “I’m very lucky to have two passions that I feel are so important and so challenging. As I prepare for this change, I firmly believe the road ahead for Microsoft is as bright as ever.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports the creation of smaller, technology-driven high schools, among other initiatives, and it has been a leading provider of charitable ed-tech funding in recent years. Within the past two months alone, it has given $21 million to the Chicago Public Schools to establish a more rigorous–and relevant–high school curriculum (see story: Chicago gets $21M to retool schools) and $10 million to North Carolina to develop 150 small high schools that will focus on areas such as biotechnology, information technology, and other fields (see story: N.C. schools get $10M for reform).

Microsoft’s chief technical officer, Ray Ozzie, immediately will assume Gates’ title as chief software architect and will begin working with Gates on overseeing all software technical design.

Chief Technical Officer Craig Mundie immediately will take the new title of chief research and strategy officer and will work with Gates in those areas. Mundie also will partner with general counsel Brad Smith to guide Microsoft’s intellectual property and technology policy efforts.

In January 2000, Gates assumed the role of chief software architect and Steve Ballmer took over the role of chief executive officer. Ballmer remains responsible for all day-to-day operations and the company’s business strategy.

“Bill and I are confident we’ve got a great team that can step up to fill his shoes and drive Microsoft innovation forward without missing a beat,” Ballmer said.

Gates, 50, and Allen started Microsoft in 1975. He took Microsoft public in 1986 and was the company’s chairman and CEO until 2000, the year he and his wife formed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose assets now total $29.1 billion.

For the past six years, Gates has focused on Microsoft’s software development as the company’s chairman and chief software architect.

Ozzie, 50, worked on the first electronic spreadsheet, VisiCalc, in the early 1980s. In 1983, he joined Lotus Development Corp.–Microsoft’s archrival at the time–to develop Lotus Symphony, a business software suite.

He later founded Groove Networks, where he developed Groove Virtual Office. Microsoft acquired Groove Networks in April 2005 and named Ozzie chief technical officer.

Mundie, 56, joined Microsoft in 1992 to create and run its Consumer Platforms Division, which was responsible for non-personal computer software. Mundie also started Microsoft’s digital TV efforts. His current responsibilities include global technology policy and a variety of technical and business incubation efforts. Ozzie and Mundie will continue to report to Gates. At an unspecified time during the two-year transition period, they will shift to reporting to Ballmer. Microsoft’s Windows software runs well over 90 percent of the nation’s desktop computers and many of its servers. Last year, Windows narrowly overtook Unix to claim the top spot in server sales for the first time, according to a February report from market research firm IDC.

In schools, about 70 percent of the installed base of computers are Windows machines, according to 2005 figures from Quality Education Data.

Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, Calif., said Gates’ absence from Microsoft’s day-to-day operations could create quite a void.

“There will be a big hole there, and I am not sure what that will mean for the success of the company,” Liebman said. But, he added, having Gates spend more time on his charitable efforts could be a boon for educational technology.

“He has the ability to be heard, and what he says might have the potential to move ed tech way beyond eMail and PowerPoint to applications that really change education as we know it,” Liebman said. “That will be exciting to watch.”

Raymond Yeagley, former superintendent of the Rochester, N.H., Public Schools and a special advisor to the Northwest Evaluation Association, echoed Liebman’s sentiments.

“With his passion to reinvent the American high school … there is little doubt that he will have a significant impact on the future of education,” Yeagley said. “New ideas will be tried and new technologies applied in ways that can’t even be considered with tax dollars. If only a small share of those ideas are productive, and if those that will best serve students are pursued aggressively, then the magnitude of private funding under his control for discovery and development can move our national discussion forward much more quickly and productively.”

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
http://www.gatesfoundation.org