Preston Gralla

Did Bill Gates help push Steve Ballmer out the door?

August 26, 2013 11:38 AM EDT

Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer may have been joined at the hip for their decades together at Microsoft, but there's some evidence that Gates may have been a key participant in getting Ballmer to resign. Did Gates help show his old friend to the door, or did he remain until the end a big backer of Ballmer?

No one is certain whether Ballmer jumped or whether he was pushed, but it certainly appears that he was either told to leave, or he saw that he had lost the backing of the board and others, and so decided to leave before he was asked to go.

Sources within Microsoft, as well as public statements of both Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, make it appear as if Gates had lost confidence, and was a player in making sure that Ballmer left Microsoft. AllThingsD reports that:

Sources said Ballmer’s timeline had been moved up drastically — first by him and then the nine-member board, including his longtime partner and Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates — after all agreed that it was best if he left sooner than later.

In Ballmer's retirement letter to Microsoft employees, he made it sound as if he didn't want to retire yet. He wrote:

"My original thoughts on timing would have had my retirement happen in the middle of our transformation to a devices and services company focused on empowering customers in the activities they value most."

AllThingsD reports:

That sentence spurred much chatter inside the company, including the persistent rumor that Gates had dropped the bomb on Ballmer. That sentiment was further underscored when Ballmer’s letter contained no reference or thanks to Gates, with whom he has been tightly tethered over the last several decades. Its absence has been much discussed internally at Microsoft, where it has been seen as an unusual slight and a sign of a rift.

AllThingsD goes on to note that Gates' comments about Ballmer since Ballmer's announcement have not been particularly praiseworthy, another possible sign that Gates helped show Ballmer the door.

Gates certainly wasn't alone responsible for Ballmer leaving. The activist shareholder ValueAct Holdings, for example, has not been a big Ballmer backer, and may have been readying a proxy battle to get a seat on the Microsoft board, the Seattle Times reports.

But Gates is Microsoft's board chairman and the biggest individual holder of Microsoft stock. If Ballmer was pushed out, even gently, Gates would have had to play a key role. So I think it's likely Gates was at least in part behind Ballmer leaving. If so, it's the best thing he's done for the company in quite a while.