How Steve Ballmer could exit Microsoft gracefully

Steve Ballmer's 11-year stint as Microsoft's CEO must come to an end someday. But when? And how? Here's our best guess

Particularly after the "Hell no, Steve must go!" chants from big-time investors, insiders, and employees, nobody expects CEO Steve Ballmer to stay at the helm of Microsoft until they pry his SideWinder keyboard from his cold, dead fingers. But no one has reliable deets on when he may depart, either, or how it might all go down, despite titillating rumors that surface regularly.

The latest scuttlebutt appeared on Windows8update.com, which passed along a tip from "someone who shall remain nameless" that SteveB "is set to resign as CEO of Microsoft sometime after the launch of Windows 8." Give the site credit for saying -- twice -- that this was a rumor and not intended to be taken as truth.

As pure speculation, however, I think it's right on the money. I've been watching Microsoft for a very long time; all you have to do is look at the known facts and connect a few dots. SteveB may be stubborn and bombastic, but he's not dumb, nor must he be thrilled by Microsoft's lackluster stock performance during his tenure. I also think he's aware of the monumental nature of his two biggest failures, Vista and anything mobile, and that things aren't looking terribly rosy in the cloud, either. It's time to go. The key questions are: Who will succeed him and how might he save face as he exits?

To fill Ballmer's shoes, another Steve
First and foremost, the only likely successor to SteveB at this point is SteveS, aka Steve Sinofsky. As I explained in January, the departure of Bob Muglia -- following Robbie Bach, Stephen Elop, and Ray Ozzie -- left only one viable internal candidate for the top spot: Steve Sinofsky, president of the Windows Division. I've heard Don Mattrick's name tossed around as well, but though Don's a techie of the first degree -- he heads Interactive Entertainment, which includes Xbox, Zune, and Kinect -- he doesn't have a pedigree from Microsoft's cash-cow divisions. COO Kevin Turner, also occasionally mentioned, had an illustrious career at Wal-Mart, but he's been tarred with the Ballmer brush.

Several industry pundits have suggested creative ways for Microsoft to reach outside the mother ship for Ballmer's replacement. The most appealing to me is Fortune magazine's suggestion that Microsoft buy Netflix and install Reed Hastings (who is both CEO of Netflix and a member of Microsoft's board) as co-CEO, alongside SteveB. Appealing as that may sound to investors and Hastings fans, of which there are many, the folks I know inside Microsoft wince at the thought of bringing in an outsider with no direct Microsoft line experience. "Preposterous" is the most polite phrase I hear.

Presuming Sinofsky is the anointed one -- either by explicit agreement or tacit understanding -- a whole bunch of observations fall into place.

The Windows 8 linchpin
There's no way on Gates's green earth that Sinofsky will work seriously on anything but Windows 8 until it hits RTM. Windows 7 was SteveS's crowning achievement, and Windows 8 has to be even better if the franchise is to continue. It's bet-the-company time, and nothing will get in the way of SteveS bringing Windows 8 to market. Industry observers who are looking for little hints about Sinosfky taking over the CEO mantle just don't understand how immersed and focused SteveS must stay to get the product out the door. Succession planning is a luxury that can start on the day after RTM. Surely both Steves understand that.

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