For two years now, Bill Gates has been wrestling with a dilemma. As his foundation, funded by $29 billion of his donations, became increasingly influential in fields like global health and education, it became clear that if he spent more time there, it could have a huge impact on the world. But he loved his work as chief brain of Microsoft, the company he cofounded in 1975. Last week he made the decision: beginning in July 2008, he will assume full-time duties at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He will keep his post as Microsoft's chairman, but spend only 20 percent of his time there. His duties will fall to chief technical officers Ray Ozzie (who becomes the new chief software architect) and Craig Mundie, who will oversee the company's research efforts. CEO Steve Ballmer will continue to run the company, but without the full-time counsel of his best friend and the icon who is synonymous with the world's biggest software company. I spoke to an energized Gates, 50, in his Redmond, Wash., office Friday, the day after he broke the news.
NEWSWEEK: Why was it necessary to make this shift?
GATES: I wouldn't say it's necessary. It's a personal choice I made. Clearly if I didn't have the foundation I would be staying here full time and working super, super hard because I love working on software. But I was feeling an increased desire to spend more time on foundation work. It was always clear that that day would come at some point. It's actually pretty rare for somebody to have two things to do that they love and feel like they're important and challenging.
Is this ironclad? What if the situation at Microsoft is different in 2008?
Once I make a decision, I'm pretty good about not thinking twice. We walked out of the green room yesterday [before the press conference to make the announcement] and I said, "Wait a minute, I don't think I'll do this." They knew I was joking. [Anyway,] the truth is not that much happens in two years. I think Microsoft's going to do great.
What will you do at the foundation when you're full time?/B>
I am going to study health and education a lot . Education is this mysterious thing. For the U.S. to continue its strength I think it's almost necessary for our education system to be a lot better. So I want to learn all that. I want to sit in schoolrooms, read books, look at people who think they have technology solutions.
You'd sit in the back of a schoolroom somewhere?
Yeah. I don't have it all laid out. I don't want to plan what my life is going to be like two years from now because I'm still very much in the full-time mode [at Microsoft].
I know you're concerned about global warming. Will the foundation become involved with that?
I'm already reading some books on energy and the environment, but I will read a lot more two years from now and think whether there's something the foundation should do in those areas. The angle I'll have when I'll look at most things is, What about the 4 billion poorest people? What about energy and environmental issues for them?
Not being at Microsoft full time, would you be more free to engage in political activities?
I'd have more time, but I'm not going to. I'm never going to run for office, ever. That wouldn't be the way for me to either enjoy myself or have the best impact that fits what I do and the way I work.
Does this switch mark the end of an era?
No. We're just at the beginning of the software-driven era; we're not anywhere near the full completion of the dream that Paul Allen and I had about a software-centric industry that changes the world.
You feel that people overemphasize your role at Microsoft?
But you fill a unique role as an ambassador of Microsoft./B>
Yes, I do. But say I give a product forecast for Office. If I'd never given the speech would you change the forecast for Office? No one will ever have the visibility that I had as the founder of this company. It's just won't happen and it's not necessary. Other than perhaps Steve Jobs, I've had [the most] visibility, but it doesn't let the world understand how many incredible people it takes. So I think Microsoft will be fine in terms of getting its message out.
Would you want your children to take key roles at Microsoft?
No. I think--and it's just a personal opinion--when you get an enterprise of this scale that you actually want to discourage your kids about getting involved in it because you'd get confusion about whether they had some special status or not.
Emotionally, what will be the toughest part of not being here full time?