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Is Bill Gates washed up?

Yes.

With these few words, I probably qualify for admission to an insane asylum. Surely, I must be joking. The world’s richest man, a loser?

Yes, it’s downhill from here for Gates, who turns 45 this year. His slide has nothing to do with age (or the prospects for Microsoft, his corporation, either). Instead, his is a cautionary tale of all innovators who strike it rich, gain renown, then seek to continue innovating.

Before I explain, let me remind you why Gates is an icon for innovators, not just capitalists. He is the greatest innovator of my lifetime, the first person in the computer industry to understand the importance of building a technological system-by hook or by crook. While other computer pioneers sneer that Gates copied this or that, they fail to see that the greatest innovations of all are those that mesh discrete inventions of others in order to launch society-wide transformations. Gates did that. Not Gary Kildall or Alan Kay or Tim Berners-Lee.

So can Gates do it again? Can he do to the Web what he did for the desktop: create a durable standard that unlocked the value of thousands of inventions? Can Gates keep the fire?

Andy Grove, Intel’s spiritual leader, has stressed the need to stay paranoid (“only the paranoid survive” is his credo). But being paranoid isn’t enough to overcome the problem of how success corrupts American innovators.

We’ve all seen this with artists, but technologists pride themselves on the sort of hard-headedness that keeps the demons at bay. Yet this confidence is more myth than reality. Many innovators bask in the glory of their achievements, assuring that their innovative years are over.Howard Gardner, the Harvard psychologist, has shown convincingly that people who stay highly creative over a lifetime constantly gravitate toward the margins. Every time they gain acclaim, they move again to the margins-even at great cost to themselves financially and reputationally (for they may be ridiculed for abandoning a niche they dominate in order to strike out for unfamiliar territory).

To his credit, Gates is trying to move toward the margins. Giving up his role as chief executive officer at Microsoft suggests that he knows he must break the mold or stagnate. But in becoming Microsoft’s software chief, he hasn’t gone far enough afield. In fact, his new job-defining Microsoft’s technical goals and deciding how best to package and present its innovations-sounds a lot like his old job.

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