Bill Gates is Microsoft, not just in the popular imagination but also within the psyches of almost everyone who works there. His retirement is being phased over such a long period because anything else would be too traumatic. This is the risk with any business established in part on a cult of personality. Microsoft's response? Create a new cult around another personality.
Step forward Ray Ozzie. This white-haired computer industry pioneer has a track record of invention and of entrepreneurship that more than passes muster; he also has that visionary thing.
With hindsight, it seems that this week's announcement of Mr Gates's retirement is only one well choreographed step in a dance that began last year when Microsoft bought Mr Ozzie's software company, Groove Networks. Or, more accurately, bought Mr Ozzie.
"We have wanted Mr Ozzie inside Microsoft for the past 20 years," Mr Gates said at the time. Now we know how he got his man: he was on a promise of being groomed to take over from Mr Gates as Microsoft's chief software architect.
The wizardry of Ozzie includes the Lotus Notes e-mail software, which he conceived and developed at his first company, Iris Associates. More recently, he has been working on "groupware", software that enables people in different locations to work together by creating virtual offices online.
At 50, he is the same age as Bill Gates, and yet he seems to represent a new era. He has been charged with "webifying" everything at Microsoft, making sure a new generation of its Word and Excel office software and the Windows operating system are integrated more closely with the internet. His experience with collaborative software gives him a significant pedigree in this area, and his status as a visionary - Microsoft's description of him - was burnished further last year in a memo to staff.
"The ubiquity of broadband and wireless networking has changed the nature of how people interact, and they're increasingly drawn toward the simplicity of services and service-enabled software that 'just works'," he told them in an e-mail tagged "The internet services disruption" that was then widely circulated and discussed .
Richard Edwards, senior analyst with the IT research company Butler Group explained that something approaching a cult of personality would be necessary if anyone other than Mr Gates is able to rouse Microsoft from its internet-denying slumber. "Ozzie's vision to add a Web dimension to, or "webify", everything Microsoft does ... will require nerves of steel and unwavering commitment from the Microsoft faithful if this plan is to have any chance of succeeding."Reuse content