Ozzie is key to Microsoft's success against Google

Ozzie is key to Microsoft's success against Google

Can Ozzie step up to the plate?

Still it remains to be seen whether Ozzie can successfully navigate Microsoft's post-Gates culture, which is sure to undergo a major shift, observers said.

A big question mark for the future of Microsoft is whether Ozzie, without the benefit of being as chummy with Ballmer as Gates was, will have the management power to execute on his technology vision.

"It's not an issue of talent," Alsop said. "The issue is who is going to make the decisions? It depends on Steve more than it depends on Ray."

Indeed, Forrester Research CEO George Colony said that Ballmer remains connected to Gates' legacy and "the long shadow he casts" on the company, which will have an enormous impact on how people within the company feel about it once he is no longer there full time.

"Not having the richest guy in the world working for the company changes how you view coming to work every day," he said. "You're not coming to work with this extraordinary person anymore. It lessens the impact of being there."

Whether Ballmer can overcome this legacy to "go beyond how Gates saw the world and to truly change the company" is one thing, Colony said. Whether that culture will "allow Ray Ozzie to take the place of Bill Gates" is still another.

The answer to the latter could lie in Ozzie's ability to inspire his own staff of developers, as well as Microsoft's larger developer community, to get behind his vision for both the company and the future of the Web, Greenstein said.

Known less for his ability to innovate than for his genius to execute in the mainstream business-technology market, Gates was able to inspire developers to go against their very free-thinking nature, he said.

"Bill has been able to persuade thousands of programmers to mute their independence for the good of an organizational goal that sometimes wasn't on the technical frontier," Greenstein said. "That runs counter to the instincts of most programmers. That is extraordinary."

As chief creator of Microsoft's future Web strategy, Ozzie must balance the needs of the company with the needs of a larger industry moving away from Microsoft's historical proprietary nature to promote an open, standards-based Web -- and hope developers will come along for the ride.

Of course, there is always the possibility that Ozzie will only have a few years to sink or swim as Gates' successor. Alsop said he would not be surprised and actually expects Microsoft's cofounder and chairman to follow the "really well-established pattern" of a founding CEO returning to lead the company again if things don't go well after his departure.

"I believe that three to five years from now, Bill Gates is going to come back and be CEO of the company," he said.

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