What Microsoft Didn't Say Today

An important subtext runs through today's Microsoft news, but not the one pundits thought they heard ... or expected.
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Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

didn't announce its voluntary breakup Thursday.

Nor has Microsoft reached an agreement with the

Justice Department

-- at least none that it has divulged.

It also didn't disclose plans to acquire

NBC

from

General Electric

(GE) - Get Report

. And it's not buying

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

or

Excite@Home

(ATHM) - Get Report

. At least not for now.

It hasn't decided to spin off its Internet businesses or freely publish the source code for its Windows 2000 operating system. Or endorse Linux as the greatest thing since, well, Windows.

No, all Microsoft did Thursday was announce that co-founder

Bill Gates

is relinquishing his CEO post to become merely chairman and "chief software architect." Oh, and largest shareholder, chief cheerleader and continued symbol of the company's global dominance of the consumer software industry.

Microsoft: Join the discussion on our

message boards.

So, does this mean that the ascension of

Steve Ballmer

as Microsoft's CEO is meaningless? Or that Microsoft's identification of a Web-based software strategy isn't important?

On the contrary. This is a symbolically momentous development and the end of an era, to be sure. But Ballmer replacing Gates as CEO is sort of like the longtime chief of staff to a legislator gracefully stepping in for the boss, who's still going to pay attention to the home district but wants to focus more on some pet projects.

Asked in a conference call with analysts and journalists how his responsibilities will change when he's CEO, Ballmer replied that he'll work with the key development teams implementing Microsoft's "next-generation Windows services" plan to make sure they "have the framework they need to execute on their vision." Well, that's precisely what Ballmer already has been doing as president, a point he repeatedly made at Microsoft's annual analyst meeting in Seattle last summer.

If anything, the change of roles for Gates is a net positive for Microsoft. The richest geek in the world -- who's never hidden the fact that he loves the technology more than the administration -- can now focus even more on what he enjoys best. Let business-guy Ballmer run the company; Gates can get down with the code-writers.

A particularly silly point floating around Thursday is that Gates is being offered as a sacrificial lamb to the U.S. government. In other words, "remove" the chief antagonist to defuse the confrontation. Anyone buying that line of argument probably wasn't listening when senior-statesman Ballmer called the government "reckless" and "irresponsible" for even considering breaking up Microsoft. They probably didn't note Ballmer's tone when he referred to "the righteousness of what we've done" in integrating functions like a Web browser into Windows.

Indeed, Ballmer said the timing of the announcement was "coincidental in every sense," having nothing to do with a suddenly leaky Justice Department -- or the biggest deal of the century (who can disagree?),

America Online's

(AOL)

acquisition of

Time Warner

(TWX)

. Ballmer said about all Microsoft did consider in terms of timing was the desire to get this long-contemplated news out before the Jan. 18 announcement of Microsoft's fiscal second-quarter earnings.

Coincidence? Maybe. More likely it's one of those fibs Microsoft tells so well that it doesn't really matter. On the one hand, the company remains as recalcitrant as ever about its monopoly status. On the other hand, it mentioned wanting to be as creative as possible in ongoing settlement talks with the government.

For the time being, it's business as usual in Redmond, Wash.

Adam Lashinsky's column appears Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, although he owns stock in TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Lashinsky writes a column for Fortune called the Wired Investor, and is a frequent commentator on public radio's Marketplace program. He welcomes your feedback at

alashinsky@thestreet.com.