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

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If Sinofsky's been promised the position, either explicitly or implicitly, we should all expect to hear exactly nothing about it: no leaks, tantalizing hints, eavesdropped conversations, or subtle innuendos passed on to the press by the inner circle. Both Steves are masters at manipulating the press and keeping mum. They won't let anything loose until they figure it's in their best interests to let the world know. Right now -- before Windows 8 ships -- is precisely the wrong time to fuel succession speculation.

On the other hand, when Windows 8 is fully baked, an unprecedented opportunity will arise, as sure as night unto day. Microsoft will declare Windows 8 the most fabulous, best-selling, far-reaching innovation in Microsoft history. Count on it. If Win8 sales numbers go south, not to worry: Microsoft will make up something that sounds plausible. Just look at what happened with Windows Phone 7 sales figures.

At that point -- when Windows 8 has started its meteoric rise, real or imagined -- the time will be ripe for a change at the top. Sinofsky can point to the bestest Windows ever, technically, and rightfully assume the mantle as Microsoft übergeek and CEO designee. Ballmer can take a bow or two for a job exceptionally well done and announce plans to drift into the sunset. The timing couldn't be better, regardless of Windows 8's technical prowess, market acceptance, or actual sales figures.

Timeline for a long good-bye
How will the transition work? Probably the same way BillG passed the baton to SteveB. To the outside world, that process took eight years, but the actual change of power progressed much more rapidly. Ballmer took over as CEO in January 2000. Gates continued to go to work every day until June 2006. At that point, Microsoft officially announced that BillG would gradually "transition out of a day-to-day role in the company" over a two-year period. It's widely accepted that SteveB was calling most of the shots long before BillG's official transition began. Gates continued as the public face of Microsoft for many years, while Ballmer ran the show.

If a similar pattern holds true, a parallel schedule would look something like this: Windows 8 hits RTM in summer/fall 2012. By the end of (calendar) third-quarter 2012, Microsoft announces that Sinofsky will take over as CEO or co-CEO, with Ballmer moving into a newly created position, beginning a six- to eight-year official transition. Ballmer continues in a publicly visible capacity, but backs away from daily operations.

In that scenario, Sinofsky would be calling almost all of the shots by 2014. In the ongoing battle of the suits versus the geeks controlling Microsoft, the geeks would once again take top hand.

Of course, anything could happen in the next three years. Einhorn could mount a hostile takeover. The Kinect could outsell Office. Facebook's market capitalization could roll over Microsoft's. Apple could buy Nokia. But barring any truly bizarre blips, I'd be willing to bet that we'll see Sinofsky running the Microsoft show by the end of 2014.

I, for one, wouldn't mind that a bit.

This article, "How Steve Ballmer could exit Microsoft gracefully," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. 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 InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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