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Microsoft proud of first ‘post-Gates’ OS: Ballmer

Windows 7 is the first operating system that Microsoft Corp. has developed away from the watchful eye of Bill Gates, and the technical managers who are leading the development process have had to adjust to life without the company's co-founder and former chief software architect, CEO Steve Ballmer said Thursday.

“We have a lot of people who are stepping up and growing in new ways,” Ballmer said, speaking at the McGraw-Hill 2009 Media Summit in New York. “There's no question about that. I'm growing in some new ways. Some of the senior technical guys are growing in new ways.”

Windows 7, which is expected make its debut later this year, is a product of some of the changes that have taken place since Gates retired from Microsoft last year, and company officials are proud of the result, Ballmer said in an on-stage interview conducted by BusinessWeek editor in chief Steve Adler.

“It's a great piece of work,” Ballmer said of the upcoming operating system. “And it's a piece of work that was driven by a team … independent of Bill and his leadership. And I think we're all, you know, feeling pretty good about it. We've got to finish it. But I think it'll be a big, big deal.”

Indeed, a beta release of Windows 7 that became available in January is receiving positive reviews from many early users. That contrasts with its predecessor, Windows Vista, which took more than five years for Microsoft to develop and has been criticized by many business users and consumers.

Without saying so explicitly, Ballmer hinted that he and other executives were limited in their ability to make certain technical decisions at Microsoft while Gates was there. Gates left his day-to-day duties at Microsoft last July to work full time at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the philanthropic organization he formed with his wife. His former duties at Microsoft are now being split by Ray Ozzie, who replaced Gates as chief software architect, and Craig Mundie, who is the company's chief research and strategy officer.

Ballmer said the “No. 1 thing” that has changed at the company is the way he, Ozzie and Mundie interact as a team to make technology decisions. “The way the three of us accomplish, let me call it the job at the center of technology leadership, is certainly different than the way Bill did,” he said.

Gates had more of the final say himself in technical decisions, according to Ballmer. “He was the founder,” Ballmer said. “I might have been the CEO, but he was 'the Bill.' He actually didn't give orders much, but if he thought something should be done, you knew life would be intense if you didn't agree.”

Even so, Ballmer added that given the choice, he and his colleagues would be happy to have Gates back.

“We miss Bill,” he said. “I mean, if you gave sort of the average senior technical person at Microsoft a vote, 'Bill back, Bill not back,' they'd probably say, 'Yeah, it'd be great to have Bill back.' On the other hand, Bill's doing something important that everybody values, and I think everybody relishes the opportunity to grow and take more responsibility.”

Ballmer declined to comment on when Windows 7 would be available, saying only that the company would release it “when it's ready.” The official word from Microsoft is that Windows 7 will ship three years after Vista, which was released to business customers in November 2006 and the general public in January 2007.

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