Is it time for Bill Gates to go?

The latest flurry in the long running soap opera known as Microsoft comes today with news that 3 top unnamed investors in the company are asking that Bill Gates to step down as Chairman of the Board. Reuters has the story, noting that there “is no indication that Microsoft’s board would heed the wishes of the three investors, who collectively hold more than 5 percent of the company’s stock”, but outlining their complaints anyway:

The three investors are concerned that Gates’ presence on the board effectively blocks the adoption of new strategies and would limit the power of a new chief executive to make substantial changes. In particular, they point to Gates’ role on the special committee searching for Ballmer’s successor.

They are also worried that Gates – who spends most of his time on his philanthropic foundation – wields power out of proportion to his declining shareholding.

Gates, who owned 49 percent of Microsoft before it went public in 1986, sells about 80 million Microsoft shares a year under a pre-set plan, which if continued would leave him with no financial stake in the company by 2018.

Microsoft is in the process of replacing long time CEO Steve Ballmer, who is stepping down sometime in the next 12 months, once a replacement is found. Gates is heading a special committee to find a successor to Ballmer, and news filtered out late last week that Ford CEO Alan Mulally is heading a short list of candidates. Mulally, attending the USA Today CEO Forum in Athens, Georgia, issued what sounds to be a pretty standard non-denial, saying “I love serving Ford and have nothing new to add to (my) plans to continue serving Ford”, according to a report in USA Today.

Microsoft has been heavily criticized lately for its slowness in recognizing the advent of the “post PC” era (or perhaps more precisely, recognizing but refusing to believe it). In a well-timed post this morning, Paul Thurrott noted that had Microsoft listened to Ray Ozzie in 2005 and 2010, instead of pushing him out the door, they might well be in a better place today:

So in 2005, Ozzie saw the services revolution and in 2010 he saw the devices revolution. In 2012, almost two years after he left the company, Microsoft declared that it would focus on devices and services going forward. Amazing.

Put simply, you need to read both of those memos from beginning to end with an eye on when they were written. And when you do, you will come to an inescapable conclusion: Ray Ozzie was right. And Microsoft’s senior leadership did not listen, certainly not at the time, and perhaps not until it was too late.

I feel like someone owes that guy a beer.

Bill Gates has long been a champion of Windows, and for good reason, it made him the richest man in the world. But has he had a hand in holding the company back, propping up Windows instead of moving on to the “next big thing”? Was Gates behind the rise of Steven Sinofsky and his Windows Uber Alles mentality? And did he side with Sinofsky over Ray Ozzie at a time when Microsoft could have moved boldly into services, but held back in order to preserve Windows and Office?

Steve Ballmer finally had enough of Sinofsky last year, and moved him out of the way in order to reorganize the company not around Windows, but around devices and services. Now Ballmer, too, is on the way out, and the person perhaps most responsible for hanging on to Windows instead of moving forward, Bill Gates, is choosing his successor. Do these investors have a point? Is it time for Bill Gates to step aside?