Darth Vader Steps Down, Death Star Flies On

Photographer: Ric Feld/AP Photo

Bill Gates in 1997, at the height of Microsoft’s power.

There’s no clearer coda to what was once called the “PC Revolution” than Bill Gates stepping down as chairman of the company he founded. Obviously this has been coming a long time. For years now it has been clear that that Gates’s enthusiasm has drifted toward philanthropy.

Still, it’s hard to get your mind around Gates leaving the chairmanship of Microsoft while he’s still sentient. But once you start thinking about it more, it’s telling that outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer, with 333 million shares, now owns almost as much of Microsoft as Gates (whose 358 million shares still add up to 4.3 percent of the company, or $13 billion). If you can imagine a Microsoft in which Gates is not the biggest individual shareholder, you can imagine a Microsoft in which he’s not chairman, too.

Many analyses of Gates’s legacy will be critical, and there will be skepticism about what role a guy as old as Gates can really have as a technology adviser. On balance, though, it seems fair to say that Gates was a genuine visionary — in the early PC era, and even the early days of the Internet. During Microsoft’s antitrust trial and the battle over the early Netscape browser, Gates was roundly criticized for claiming that there was really no difference between the web browser and the operating system.

That doesn’t seem so preposterous now, does it? Gates didn’t manage to own the Internet Age. But he sure did see it coming.

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