After Microsoft said last week that Bill Gates will step away from a day-to-day role at the company over the next two years, users lauded his contributions to Microsoft and the IT industry.

But many said they think the change could be positive for Microsoft as it manoeuvres to fend off competition from Google, Linux vendors and other emerging rivals.

For example, Schering-Plough systems analyst Christopher Wanko described the transition plan as "absolutely good news" for Microsoft. It comes "at a time when the old school needs to become a hallowed memory, and new ideas and perspectives should come to the fore," Wanko said.

Gates is "a brilliant strategic thinker [who] revolutionised the industry," said John Halamka, CIO at CareGroup Healthcare System and Harvard Medical School. "However, it's clear that Microsoft has not competed well with market innovations from Google, Linux and the next generation of thin, Web-based applications."

The software vendor "needs to transform itself, and new leaders in day-to-day operations may create opportunities for radical change," he added.

Ann Harten, IT VP at office furniture maker Haworth, noted that "a new perspective, with Bill's ongoing guidance, might be a refreshing approach" for Microsoft -- particularly if the company's focus shifts to "accurate and usable [product] delivery."

End of an era

Not everyone among the 25 users contacted by Computerworld last week was so upbeat about Gates' plan to relinquish his role as Microsoft's chief software architect. The duties now performed by Gates will be split between Ray Ozzie and Craig Mundie, who both previously held chief technical officer jobs at the company.

And Weather Channel CTO Dan Agronow lamented the announcement as "the end of an era." Gates is "the individual that's the embodiment of Microsoft," Agronow said. "When you think of Microsoft, you think of Bill. I think now Microsoft will be viewed more as a corporate, faceless entity, similar to IBM. I don't see that as good or bad; it's more sad."

However, Agronow predicted that the changes will likely make Microsoft even slower to respond to competitive threats. "I don't see them having the single strong personality that could turn the ship when needed, like when they finally recognised the threat of Netscape," he said.

Gates "is the heart and soul of that company, so I have to believe that his departure would make it something less than it was before," said Chris Hubbell, a software systems engineer at Westar Energy. The planned transition "makes Microsoft a little less imposing" and potentially more vulnerable to competition, Hubbell said.

"Microsoft is so much Bill Gates in terms of corporate personality," said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group in San Jose.

But Enderle noted that Ozzie was hired last year, when he sold Groove Networks to Microsoft, with the intent that he eventually would step into Gates' role as chief software architect. Gates likely judged that Ozzie had performed to his satisfaction and that "it was a matter of pulling the trigger and letting it happen," Enderle said.

He also pointed to delays in the development of Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista operating system as a possible contributing factor. The Vista problems may have prompted Gates to "think it was time to make the transition," Enderle said. "Bill was a bit more distracted from the chief architect role than he should have been."

As part of the plan Microsoft announced last Thursday, Ozzie, who, like Gates, is 50 years old, took on the title of chief software architect. The company said Ozzie will work "side by side" with Gates on technical architecture and product oversight matters during the transition period.

New responsibilities

Mundie, 56, was given the new title of chief research and strategy officer and will gradually take over responsibility for the company's research and technology incubation efforts from Gates. In addition, Mundie will work with Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, to lead its intellectual property and technology policy initiatives.

Gartner analyst David Smith said Microsoft faces a changing technology landscape and needs to reinvent itself to accommodate IT trends such as the delivery of software as a service and the development of so-called Web 2.0 applications.

Gates has led Microsoft's responses to major market challenges in the past. In particular, he wrote a legendary 1995 memorandum titled "Internet Tidal Wave," in which he expounded on how critical e-commerce would become to business survival.

But Smith said that Ozzie is better suited to driving major changes than Gates is at this point. Dave Chacon, a technical services manager at golf equipment maker Ping Inc. in Phoenix, said he thinks Ozzie also will be more willing "to take risks for the sake of the customer" than Gates is. "I'm hoping that this translates into a company that is focused on providing products with such intrinsic value that there is no need to use customer lock-in techniques," Chacon said. "It always drives me crazy when I have to put up with marginal Product A because of an artificial coupling with valuable Product B."

Wanko said he is eagerly anticipating moves in new directions from Microsoft -- such as possibly spinning off some of its operations into separate companies. "I like change -- change is good," he said. "And anything that can potentially break up a monopoly, even a de facto one, is always good for consumers and the industry alike." Wanko added that with the planned changes, Microsoft "might get me to take a second look at its portfolio."