Bill Gates cuts formal ties with Microsoft, marking the end of an era

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Microsoft marked the end of an era on Friday when Bill Gates stepped down from its board, severing all official ties with the company he co-founded and helped turn into a tech colossus.

The billionaire said he chose to leave Microsoft’s board—in addition to Berkshire Hathaway’s on Friday—“to dedicate more time to philanthropic priorities including global health and development, education, and my increasing engagement in tackling climate change.” 

Although Gates stepped down as Microsoft CEO in 2008 and relinquished his chairman’s title in 2014, his announcement on Friday marks a huge milestone. For the first time since he co-founded the company in 1975 with his childhood friend, the late Paul Allen, he has no formal role at the company.  

Still, Gates, who will be a technical advisor to current CEO Satya Nadella, said that he is “in no way means stepping away from the company.” But that is unlikely to include major strategic decisions, like when the company dissolved a high-profile partnership with IBM in the early 1990s to focus on its Windows operating system.

In many ways Gates is synonymous with Microsoft as the late Steve Jobs was with Apple. Both executives co-founded companies that became icons in American business and helped usher in the era of personal computing.

While Jobs was known for his showmanship and marketing expertise, Gates was a more of a cerebral icon whose nerdy demeanor helped him appeal to the millions of developers who built software on top of Microsoft Windows.

But despite their contrasting personalities (Gates said in a recent interview that he envied Jobs’ public speaking skills), both executives were occasionally ruthless in business. During Gates’ tenure as CEO, the U.S. government won a lawsuit in which Microsoft was found to have violated antitrust laws by requiring computer makers to include Microsoft’s web browser along with Windows, hurting competing browser makers.

During a deposition, Gates was combative and condescending to his interrogators, showing the public a confrontational aspect of his personality that his dorky appearance may have masked. Although the Justice Department eventually settled with Microsoft, Gates’ company became the image of monopolistic capitalism that needed reigning in. 

Since Gates stepped down as chairman, Microsoft has since flourished into a leading cloud computing company, surprising skeptics who thought the Windows-maker had lost its mojo when it famously missed the rise of mobile computing. While Nadella refocused Microsoft on business customers, Gates increasingly refocused on his charitable efforts.

Indeed, Gates built a second career for himself as one of the world’s leading philanthropists through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The non-profit he created with his wife nearly 20 years ago has since invested billions of dollars in programs intended to combat poverty and develop vaccines to eradicate diseases like HIV and malaria. In a statement explaining his revamped role at Microsoft and Berkshire, Gates said he believes their leadership teams “have never been stronger, so the time is right to take this step.”

“Microsoft will always be an important part of my life’s work and I will continue to be engaged with Satya and the technical leadership to help shape the vision and achieve the company’s ambitious goals,” Gates said. “I feel more optimistic than ever about the progress the company is making and how it can continue to benefit the world.”

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