For decades, Microsoft (MSFT -0.18%) was synonymous with Bill Gates. After his childhood friend and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen retired in 1983 after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, Gates was Microsoft, and vice versa. As former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer learned after being named chief executive in 2000, following in the footsteps of a world technology leader isn't an easy proposition. Some would argue Ballmer brought on much of the ill-will from investors and industry pundits alike by holding on to the past much too long, rather than looking to the future.

Based on Microsoft's recent successes in cloud-related solutions and its new emphasis on becoming a significant player in mobile technologies, Ballmer's replacement, Satya Nadella, has been a breath of fresh air. And shareholders have reaped the benefits, enjoying Microsoft's 24% jump in share price so far this year. Turns out, however, there's a bit more to the Nadella-Microsoft turnaround story, and it involves a familiar face.

Heee's, back!
An article was published in Vanity Fair recently discussing Microsoft's transition to Nadella, only the third CEO in company history, dating back to its inception nearly 40 years ago. Both Gates and Nadella were included in the discussion, and it became apparent the two are very much on the same page in terms how to ensure Microsoft remains, "relevant."

Nadella said a key objective for Microsoft is to ensure software and services help people accomplish more, in less time. As he put it, the winner's in the tech industry will be those that do, "the best job of building the right software experiences to give both organizations and individuals time back so that they can get more out of their time, that's the core of this company—that's the soul."

Gates was quick to piggy-back Nadella's comments, adding "We're not even a third of the way toward empowering workers even to the dream that goes back to the start of the company." Clearly, the two like-minded tech gurus share a common vision for the future of technology, and Microsoft's place in it. Which is a good thing, since it appears Gates himself is spending a great deal more time helping to define Microsoft's future than most of thought.

As intriguing as the insights the two provided were, what may catch some by surprise was Gates' admission that he now devotes, "30 percent" of his time to Microsoft, a decision he made when Nadella was given the top job in early Feb. It's not shocking that Gates was working with Microsoft; his input is invaluable, but 30%? When a tech giant with the status of Gates come back into the fold, how long will it be before questions arise about who's really running the show at Microsoft?

There's also the question of where Ballmer fits in the Microsoft picture, if at all? It's a valid question because as Microsoft fans may know, by spring of this year , Ballmer became the largest single owner of Microsoft stock, with approximately 4% of its outstanding shares. Of course Ballmer has already resigned from Microsoft's board, and has plenty on his plate already, including becoming the new owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers.

Challenges remain

Developing solutions to free up time, as Nadella suggested, or technologies that are "pervasive," virtually surrounding us, as Gates alluded to, aren't novel ideas: one look at the growth in the Internet of Things makes that clear. And that puts Microsoft in the mix with a cast of familiar foes, including Google (GOOG 1.06%) (GOOGL 1.08%) and IBM (IBM 0.04%), among others. IBM's super computer Watson, and its emphasis on cloud big data solutions, dominate CEO Ginni Rometty's focus as she attempts to right the IBM ship. It's been slow going, but IBM is beginning to make some headway.

If there was any doubt that Google saw the future of the industry as "pervasive," ala Gates, its recent $3.2 billion acquisition of "smart" home solution provider Nest Labs answered that. You can add its line-up of wearables, an industry leading mobile OS, and a full suite of cloud solutions to Google's pervasive arsenal. Microsoft certainly has some challenges ahead, with or without Gates.

Final Foolish thoughts
So, who's running things up in Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, WA? Gates would be the first to say Nadella's CEO, and the buck stops with him. As for Ballmer, he may own the most stock, but he has no intention of muddying the Microsoft waters, he's got an NBA title to focus on. Which leaves Microsoft in the enviable position of having the best of both worlds: A new leader that has quickly changed Microsoft's culture, for the better, along with access to one of the technology industry's all-time leading innovators.