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Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates at the company's recent annual meeting, second from right, as CEO Steve Ballmer spoke.

[Update: In comments to AllThingsD and CNet News, a spokesman for Gates says the Microsoft chairman is not considering coming back full-time to the company.]

The Fortune reporter who wrote this thinly sourced story today floating the possibility of Bill Gates returning to Microsoft probably wasn’t in attendance at the company’s most recent annual meeting of shareholders. The Microsoft chairman sat quietly on the stage with his head down for almost the entire meeting — speaking only when directly asked a question by a shareholder, as has become his tradition at these things nowadays.

A relaxed and happy Bill Gates speaking on the Microsoft campus about philanthropy this year.

Presumably Gates was reviewing notes, but he could have been reading the Steve Jobs biography for all we could tell from the audience.

Bottom line, unless he has a fantastic poker face (or bridge face, I guess), this was not the picture of a co-founder plotting his triumphant return.

And Gates has told us as much, repeatedly making it clear that he has moved on from full-time work at Microsoft, not only in practice but in mindset. The Bill Gates who spoke to students recently at the University of Washington was a man comfortable in his role with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and his status as a sort of geeky global statesman.

On the other hand, the question of whether Microsoft needs someone filling Gates’ former role of chief technology officer is a valid one, which I explored in detail in a piece this summer. In short, my contention is yes.

Microsoft and Gates’ representatives aren’t commenting on the Fortune report, but that’s standard practice with these things. As Jay Greene of CNet points out today, Fortune itself reported last year that Microsoft “almost seems like an afterthought nowadays” for Gates.

Of course, stranger things have happened. And a Gates comeback would be an epic story. But to take this seriously, we’re going to need better verification than a “prominent chief executive” telling Fortune “he’d heard from someone close to Gates that he might be considering such a move.”


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