In the 1970s, no one could have foreseen that a small start-up created by Bill Gates and a team of fellow computer nerds in New Mexico would become the Washington state-based tech behemoth it has become today.
Microsoft — for better or worse, depending on your perspective — set the standard for operating systems in PCs with Windows, bequeathed gamers with the Xbox 360 and the shoot-'em-up trilogy Halo and, in the opinion of some analysts, brought desktop computing to the larger world.
As the company prepares for Gates' departure this Friday, a host of analysts and tech experts waxed practical and philosophical about the future of Microsoft and the legacy of the man behind the curtain.
"I think Bill Gates leaving is on the same level as Steve Jobs leaving [Apple]. He is Microsoft," said Mary Jo Foley, author of the book "Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era." "He has been the face of Microsoft for 33 years."
Since its start in 1975, Gates has run Microsoft, building it from the ground up and contributing everything from software development to business acumen. Microsoft went public in 1986, with Gates as the CEO and chairman. In 2000, Gates stepped back as CEO, allowing Steve Ballmer to step into that roll. In 2006, the company announced that Gates would transition out of his day-to-day responsibilities as chairman and work more closely with the charitable foundation he started with his wife, Melinda, eight years ago.
With Balmer at the helm and Ray Ozzie as the company's chief software architect, many believe that Microsoft will handle the transition seamlessly.
"Microsoft has had the good fortune of having been run by a founder for a very long time. I don't think they're going to miss Bill," said Silicon Valley-based technology forecaster Paul Saffo. "The big cheese [Ballmer] in charge of the company has been with Bill and Microsoft since the beginning."
Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupiter Research, agreed.
"Microsoft is less dependent over the years on Bill's persona than it was in previous years. Seeds were set since Ballmer took over as CEO. … Microsoft will continue without him, and I think that's ultimately what he was aiming for," Gartenberg said. "This is Bill's company. Bill built and redefined an entire industry. He was challenged by a number of competitors throughout the years and successfully fought off all the challengers, even when naysayers predicted Microsoft's loss of relevance."
But lately those naysayers have been getting louder. The newest version of Windows — Vista — has been widely panned by both consumers and businesses. The company made a failed bid for Yahoo this year to expand in the area of search ads. After rejecting the deal, Yahoo then turned around and struck an ad deal with Google, which was largely seen by analysts as a Silicon Valley slap in the face to the Washington state-based company. Microsoft also faces competition from Google in its bread and butter product — namely Office — as Google and other companies take those word processing and spreadsheet functions off the desktop and online.
And surely you've seen the ubiquitous Apple vs. PC commercials. Could John "P.C." Hodgmen in those ubiquitous Apple ads look any more like a schlumpy exaggeration of Gates?
But don't think that a crumbling empire would pull Gates out of retirement.