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Steve Ballmer has been Microsoft's CEO for six years, but Bill Gates' plan to retire from day-to-day duties has left Ballmer feeling like he's facing a sea change in his role at the company.
"I felt personally that essentially I had a new job," Ballmer said Thursday at the start of Microsoft's annual meeting with financial analysts. "The partnership that Bill and I had in running this business has been unique in many ways. We have been co-whatever you want to call the top job in the company for a long time."
Gates, Microsoft's chairman and now former chief software architect, has been the Redmond, Wash., company's top evangelist and catalyst for innovation, according to Ballmer.
"I have never had to be the primary champion of innovation in our company," Ballmer said. "Bill has been the real driver."
Gates' gradual withdrawal from Microsoft was symbolized by his absence from the analyst meeting, marking the first time in Microsoft's history that he has skipped it. Gates is on vacation in Africa, Ballmer said.
Changes like Gates' retirement planning and the upcoming Vista/Office 2007 wave mark "the beginning of a new era for Microsoft," Ballmer said. "I think a lot about how the company will move forward: our growth, our innovation, where we are going."
At the heart of Ballmer's vision is a plan for Microsoft to be a "multicore" business, with lucrative strongholds in a variety of markets. The company already has established cores in desktop and server software and is working to add two more in online services and entertainment, he said.
Ballmer played up the importance of Vista and Office 2007--"the most exciting releases of both products maybe ever," he said--yet left room for the products to slide further behind schedule.
Kevin Johnson, co-president of Microsoft's platform and services division, said Microsoft is still comfortable with its plan to have Vista ready for wide release in January, but he noted that Microsoft won't hesitate to revise the schedule if necessary to ensure Vista's quality.
"We're going to ship the product when it's ready, and we're just going to take it milestone by milestone," Johnson said. Release candidate one of Vista should be ready to go this quarter, he added.