Why Tony Bates is resurfacing as a 'likely' Microsoft CEO

Hint: It has nothing to do with his viability as a Steve Ballmer replacement

There was no rest for rumormongers over the long Thanksgiving weekend. In a brilliant display of first-class PR manipulation, Kara Swisher at AllThingsD reported -- on Black Friday, no less -- that "more than a dozen tech leaders in Silicon Valley, as well as several top Microsoft execs I have talked to over the last week, have a single choice to lead the company: Tony Bates."

Barring the possibility that Swisher had turkey dinner with a dozen and a half movers and shakers (admittedly, always a possibility for Swisher), the article struck me as an absolutely masterful piece of Microsoft PR, delivered on a slow news weekend. Somebody inside Waggener Edstrom -- Microsoft's legendary PR company -- must be tickled pink about the article's tone and timing. I'd be willing to bet Swisher's piece is the harbinger of bigger news in the next week or two (more about that shortly).

Executive VP Bates has long been a top contender for Steve Ballmer's soon-to-be-vacated CEO spot. I singled him out in August: "I'd put my money on Bates. I'd even stick my neck out and, at the risk of sounding like a Kremlinologist, guess that the position Bates is in right now -- executive VP of business development -- was created specifically to see how well he could perform swimming with the big sharks." Several times before and after that gaze into the crystal ball, Microsoft watchers have centered on Bates -- and for good reason: He and Satya Nadella are the only ones with both the technical background and Microsoft experience necessary to run the company and, most importantly, they're the highest-level folks with street cred that'll inspire the troops.

Swisher's article makes some observations about Bates -- in many cases attributable to her unidentified dirty dozen plus -- that deserve embellishment.

I'm not as impressed with the "Mulally as CEO" push as others appear to be. It's entirely possible that Ford CEO Alan Mulally will end up as Microsoft CEO (see my who's-who guide to Microsoft's "Game of Thrones"), but he wouldn't be -- indeed, given his experience, couldn't be -- a hands-on manager. If Mulally is at the top, the people reporting to him will control Microsoft's heart and soul. It's possible the board will appoint a handful of people to report to Mulally, but if so it certainly realizes that would only delay the inevitable choice of one individual who will run the company. The board would, in essence, be shirking its responsibility -- and I don't think the shareholders would like that.

But appointing Mulally as CEO and Bates as COO would work. As would making Mulally an "interim" CEO or "adviser to the CEO" or "in loco parentis." Choose your appelation.

Swisher notes that Bates doesn't have a technical degree (so what? -- at least he didn't try to fake it). He hasn't been CEO of a big public company (true, but how many CEOs of 100,000-employee companies would be crazy enough to take the job at Microsoft?). He's too friendly with the digerati (bring it on!), and a "wee bit too interesting, too" (as if other CEOs in this class aren't interesting!).

Further refining the negatives list, in a comment attributed to the unattributed source:

He has not put himself out there on any major initiative at Microsoft since he arrived in 2011 after the Skype acquisition, or vastly contributed to major growth (Nadella certainly has). Then again, Bates has not presided over any messes such as Surface, either.

I have to hedge on that one. I think that when the definitive history of the Ballmer turnover is written (if anyone can ever get straight answers about anything), Bates will be portrayed as a key player from a discreet distance. Although I'm certain that Ballmer told an accurate story of his departure and its motivations in his interview with ZDnet's Mary Jo Foley in late August, I can't help but think he didn't let all the cats out of the bag. One of the big cats: Bates' assignment to a created-out-of-thin-air position in July during the major Microsoft reorganization. Is it possible that Bates was a key player in the reorg, working as Ballmer's sounding board -- with an eye to becoming his successor?

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