Investor calls for Ballmer's head -- but who will replace him?

Investment heavy hitter David Einhorn says it's time for Steve Ballmer to step aside. But does Microsoft have anyone waiting in the wings to succeed him?

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Who is Ballmer's heir apparent?

Which brings me back to the question of which so-and-so Einhorn has in mind: If Ballmer steps aside, who's the next in line?

I've written several times over the past six months about Microsoft's executive revolving door. Bob Muglia, Ray Ozzie, Amitabh Srivastava, Stephen Elop, Robbie Bach -- all are gone. Many of the top people five years ago are gone now, too: J Allard, Martin Taylor, Chris Liddell. Some long-established key people are still around, of course: Yusuf Mehdi (Bing), Chris Jones (Windows Live), Tami Reller (CFO of Windows Live), Eric Rudder (who seems to be involved in many areas). But none of them has been promoted to president of one of Microsoft's key divisions; they aren't leading any of the major profit and loss centers.

Back in January, I talked about the surprisingly short list of Microsoft presidents who have experience working in multiple parts of the company and came to the conclusion that Steve Sinofsky ranks as "the last man standing."

Unless Einhorn has someone from outside the company in mind -- or he's got the inside track on somebody who's completely off my radar -- he must be looking at so-and-so Sinofsky. Interesting prospect, that.

Sinofsky is best known as The Guy Who Saved Windows. He and his formidable team took the Vista debacle and turned it into Windows 7, to great acclaim. On the downside, Sinofsky's also known as The Guy Who Invented Ribbons. Don't know about you, but to me that speaks volumes about Sinofsky's vision for consumer-friendly software.

I don't think there's any chance Microsoft will move from Ballmer to Sinofsky in the short term. Right now, and for the next 12 to 16 months, Sinofsky's locked in a bet-your-company battle to make the next version of Windows better than the current version. It's a formidable task, and I doubt that anyone else can do it.

On the other hand, it's possible that Ballmer and the Microsoft board will officially annoint Sinofsky as heir apparent, set up a transition plan, and wave some arms about Microsoft's future direction. If Einhorn's wake-up call gains some traction and Microsoft makes some noises about a transition from Ballmer to Sinofsky, I bet the market will react favorably.

And I bet that's exactly what Einhorn had in mind.

This article, "Investor calls for Ballmer's head -- but who will replace him?," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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