He'll be back.
It's a testament to how Bill Gates' image -- and fortunes -- have changed over the last few years that his departure from daily life at Microsoft today isn't being met with wailing and despair in Redmond -- and cheers and high-fives everywhere else -- but with a thoughtful appraisal of the man's career and even a bit of nostalgia about the past.
This only underscores the wisdom that your enemies only praise you when they no longer fear you, and the best PR only goes to the inconsequential.
A dozen years ago, this scenario would have been unimaginable. In those days, when Microsoft literally seemed an unstoppable force, destined to chew up and swallow Silicon Valley and the rest of the high-tech world, the whispered conversation in tech boardrooms everywhere was: "How do we stay out of Gates' way long enough that he eats us last?"
In those days, Gates was the Antichrist of American Business, and Microsoft the Evil Empire. And worse, Gates, with his knowing smile and nerdish cockiness, seemed to positively revel in that reputation. The world scrutinized everything about him -- from his autistic-like tendency to rock back and forth when he was concentrating, to the highly competitive atmosphere of his childhood home life -- and concluded that he was some kind of computer genius land shark that could only survive by endlessly moving forward and attacking his prey.
So threatening was Gates perceived to be that there was talk afoot, everywhere from the Valley to Washington to Brussels, that he had to be stopped, even if by extra-legal means. Thus, Gates was hauled in front of Congress, where he was accused by other high-tech executives, and Microsoft was tried by the EU.
Microsoft was hardly innocent -- like Gates, the company reveled in playing hardball and bent a lot of corners to win -- but the treatment of the company was both over the top and incommensurate. And if we have conveniently forgotten most of this, one legacy of that witch hunt will stand with us forever: More than anything, the sudden (as opposed to slow) collapse of the dot-com boom in 2000 appears to have been precipitated by the loss of market confidence stemming from the federal government attacking a single commercial enterprise for no obvious reason than that it was too successful.
As most of you know, I have never been an apologist for Gates or Microsoft. Indeed, it was in this very column four years ago that I was the first to declare "Microsoft RIP" -- and earned myself a firestorm in the process. Nor have I been a great fan of Microsoft's products over the years.
But that said, I am haunted by two events -- one public, one private -- involving Bill Gates.
The first was an appearance that Gates made on a Sunday morning talk show near the end of the '90s. When asked whether he could understand why the world feared Microsoft and thought it unstoppable, Gates replied that the history of high-tech showed that no company, no matter how powerful and successful, could ever stay on top for long -- and that someday, perhaps sooner rather than later, some other hot company would replace Microsoft at the top of the heap.