On Feb. 4, Satya Nadella, the long time leader of Microsoft’s cloud and server enterprise divisions, was appointed as CEO of the company following the resignation of Steve Ballmer. There was much discussion of the nature of the choice, and it was debated whether his appointment would usher in a new era for the old tech giant, which has been struggling against upstart powerhouses in age of mobile devices and online social networking.

But in the background, another equally significant appointment was made – Bill Gates. Gates, co-founder of the company, has decided to step down from his dissociated chairman position and take on a more active role as a “technology advisor” to the company.

The exact nature of this position is unclear, perhaps deliberately so – Microsoft is likely keen to avoid the idea that Gates is retaking the corporation, as enticing as the memory of Steve Jobs’ powerful rejuvenation of a failing company may be in the minds of tech enthusiasts.

On his part, Gates has insisted that his new position is simply to “lend vision” to the company, advising on new directions as it pushes away from the failure of Windows 8. But it’s been almost 15 years since Gates was CEO, and he will return to a very different tech business than the one he helped to found.

Unlike icons such as Jobs and Zuckerberg whose faces are innately associated with the culture of their companies, Gates has grown apart from Microsoft and now bears little resemblance to the massive corporation he once founded.

Gates’ new public front is as a philanthropist, his name now more associated with polio campaigns and public welfare than with technology. Meanwhile, Microsoft teeters between the floundering ineptitude of products like IE and Surface, and the massive and omnipresent workhorse infrastructure of Office and Windows.

It’s hard to think of two more dichotomous entities, despite their common origin – Gates as the humanitarian, attempting long-reaching goals for health and welfare, and Microsoft as  innately authoritarian, maintaining an iron grip over its long-held domain in productivity software. Gates embodies visions for the future, while Microsoft is stagnating.

Perhaps this is why he is rejoining the company. Gates states that his official reasons for stepping back into the computer business are to promote a new era of interconnectivity between mobile electronics and traditional systems.

“I am excited about how the cloud and new devices can help us communicate and collaborate in new ways,” Gates said during a Reddit AMA. “The OS won’t just be on one device and the information won’t just be files – it will be your history including being able to review memories of things like kids growing up. I was thrilled Satya asked me to pitch in to make sure Microsoft is ambitious with its innovation.”

This vision is not unlike the recent ambitions of companies like Google and Intel, which have begun to invest heavily in the so-called “Internet of Things” the concept that the future of devices will not be in their individual characteristics but in a broader connectivity between electronics that will span hundreds of everyday devices in a joint collection of interlocking software.

In such a system, it is not the capacity of a single phone or desktop computer that matters, but rather their collective strength and overall usefulness of these devices for the busy and increasingly demanding electronics consumer.

If this is in fact the direction Microsoft is taking, it’ll be a big change for the company, which has struggled even with the basic integration of Windows 8 across mobile and desktop systems. Satya Natella, who has spent his recent career promoting intelligent use of the cloud, may be a good choice for a new focus on enhanced interconnectivity.

But dealing with mobile devices is more than a business challenge – a larger vision for cohesive appearance and technology will be required to bring the company back to the forefront of the industry.

Gate’s distance may be an advantage, potentially allowing him to be the outside eye looking in, to make new and drastic changes where they are needed. This promise is a softer and more optimistic personality than the one that ran Microsoft in 1995.

“I make sure we pick ambitious scenarios and that we have a strong architecture to deliver on them. I encourage good work (hopefully),” Gates concluded on the AMA.

It will be exciting to watch in the coming years to see if he is right.

Copeland is a member of the class of 2015.

 



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