Goodbye Bill Gates and Windows XP. Hello...?

It’s all yours, Steve Ballmer.

The Bud Abbott of Redmond, and perhaps the tech world’s most famous sidekick, has officially taken the reigns of the world’s most important technology company at an auspicious moment. There were plenty of tributes written last week, and over the weekend, to Bill Gates, who officially stepped down from his daily duties at Microsoft on Friday.

And what happens on the first day of the Ballmer show? The company discontinues sales of Windows XP despite the protest of many users who have refused to upgrade to the the new version, Windows Vista. My favorite headline on the mess: “Hasta La Vista, Windows XP.”

The decision to discontinue sales of XP comes despite the fact that big corporate customers and partners like Intel are declining to adopt Vista. Some folks argue that the criticism of Vista is overstated. While others continue to insist that it’s a disaster.

Ina Fried of Cnet argues that this may not be as insane as it seems at first glance:

“So, if businesses and consumers all like XP, why on earth would Microsoft stop selling it?

There are a couple of reasons. For one, XP is now seven years old. Even with a major security enhancement (XP Service Pack 2), the company benefits from shifting things to the more secure Windows Vista.

It is also critical for Microsoft to build the install base of Vista as quickly as it can. That’s because developers won’t really start building applications that are Vista-dependent until it occupies a large percentage of machines in active use. Even with 140 million Vista copies sold, there are still extremely few programs that really harness the features of Vista.”

But for Paul McDougall of InformationWeek, the bad juju puts a cloud over the start of the Ballmer era, to the point where he even raises the idea that Ballmer is not the right man to lead Microsoft into battle against Google and its “cloud computing” concept:

“Now, Microsoft needs to move forward with new leadership and new technology that can move it into the clouds if it’s to compete with Google and whatever else crawls out of Silicon Valley in the years ahead.

The problem: It doesn’t look like Microsoft is heading skyward any time soon.

Steve Ballmer, the current CEO, says he plans to remain at the helm for another decade. Ballmer, like Gates, cut his teeth in the desktop world, so he may not be the man to lead Microsoft’s Web efforts.

And early glimpses of Windows 7, the successor to Vista, indicate that it will be as big and bulky as Vista itself.

That’s not good.”

For my part, this cloud computing concept strikes me as nebulous marketing speak. While Google is impressive, I’m not as awestruck as many. Beyond search, many of its products are me-too also-rans. For all the criticism, Yahoo still leads Google in most non-search areas like Mail and News.

I also think people are too eager to assign Microsoft to the scrap heap. Yes, clearly the company has always been two steps behind when it comes to the Internet. This goes all the way back to the mid-90s when Gates published his book “The Road Ahead” which barely mentioned the Internet.

On the other hand, I’d argue that Microsoft remains far more critical to our lives, and our IT infrastructure, than Google. Imagine this for a moment: What if Google disappeared? How would your life or your business be affected? Not much, really. (Unless you’d invested gobs of money in the stock). But there are plenty of other search engines, albeit not as good, that you could use right away, without any really hassle.

Now what if Microsoft vanished? There would be chaos. Literally, chaos. We’re almost totally dependent on Microsoft products from our servers to our PCs to many of our gadgets. Microsoft is much more deeply embeded in our lives.

The question now is: Can Ballmer leverage that? It won’t be easy, certainly. But I’m not ready to bet against him or Microsoft. Not yet.