Would Microsoft be better off without Bill?

Gates lounging
We'll never get tired of running this pic.

There's blood in the water at Microsoft. Fresh from claiming the scalp of CEO Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's shareholders want another victim: Mr William Henry Gates III.

Gates was Ballmer's protector, they say, and the mistakes Microsoft made in recent years were made with Bill Gates as chairman of the firm. He's a liability, and Microsoft would be better off without him.

Are they right?

You could argue that what Microsoft really needs is more Bill, not less. In an essay he cranked out in late 2002, he said: "Using [a device] will become like using electricity when you turn on a light.

Computers, like electricity, will play a role in almost everything you do, but computing itself will no longer be a discrete experience. We will be focused on what we can do with computers, not on the devices themselves."

His dates were slightly off - his predictions were for 2010, so they were very slightly premature - but it's clear that Gates knew exactly where we were heading. So why didn't Microsoft take us there?

Don't blame Ballmer

Steve Ballmer may have been CEO for 13 years, but he wasn't the only person steering Microsoft. As Jean-Louis Gassée writes in The Guardian, there was a whole board of directors who "watched the company miss opportunities, take one wrong turn after another, and fail to execute crucial transitions."

There's an argument that most of Microsoft's problems stem from a single issue. Like the proverbial man with a hammer for whom everything looks like a nail, Microsoft is accused of seeing the whole world through the prism of Windows and Office - so anything that risks its most profitable business, even if that business is declining, is a no-no.

Why is it a no-no? Because of institutional shareholders. Such shareholders don't like big risks and they certainly don't like long bets.

To take just one example, Nomura Equity Research analyst Rick Sherlund reckons that Microsoft should sell its Xbox business to Samsung and that it should sell off Bing too.

The reason? "Shareholders [are] potentially demanding a greater say in the direction of the company and how it might be run to drive a better return to shareholders."

Never mind that by selling the Xbox, Microsoft would effectively be abandoning the living room and mobile gaming, or that by dumping Bing it would be giving up on mobile and desktop search and what Steve Ballmer described as "big data/machine learning."

That stuff's in the far-flung future, whereas investors can see the share price right now.

There's no doubt that Microsoft has made some mis-steps. What's less clear is who the culprit is. Is the problem really a lack of vision at the top, or is it the need to satisfy shareholders who can't see beyond the next set of financial results?

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.