The two guys most likely to succeed Steve Ballmer

Steve Ballmer's spent many of the past few years nudging or kicking potential successors out of the company. Push has come to shove. Who will step up?

The general consensus on Steve Ballmer's imminent departure is that the Windows 8 fiasco spurred it. I don't see it that way. Ballmer has built a very strong company in several different dimensions. Windows 8 is a small, and shrinking, part of the puzzle. I think Ballmer's been planning his departure for a long time. 

But who will fill his shoes? He's cleared out the ranks of senior management -- intentionally or not -- and brought in a new layer of younger, more cloud-savvy leaders who can pull Microsoft out of the old Windows-and-Office rut. The re-org last month was obviously a prelude to, and orchestrated with, Ballmer's retirement in mind.

In my opinion, two Microsoft players stand at the head of the queue to succeed Ballmer. Before we get to them, let's talk to the big, empty chair: Sinofsky, at one point the only obvious heir apparent, left the fold last November. I postulate, once again, that the most likely reason for Sinofsky's departure was that the CEO title wasn't headed his way. Or at least, not quickly enough.

There's absolutely no question in my mind that both Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer have a successor in mind, the fluff about appointing a search committee notwithstanding.

So ... who?

Last November I wrote about the Redmond "Game of Thrones" and noted at the time that, with Sinofsky out of the picture, "it's awfully hard to see any successor for Ballmer, either inside or outside the company." The re-org hasn't changed that one whit.

Here's my short list:

Bill Veghte is obviously in line to become CEO of HP -- he received a big promotion earlier this week. Veghte spent 19 years at Microsoft, mostly on the marketing side. He's probably best known for leading the rollout of Windows 7. Veghte left Microsoft in 2009 after Sinofsky was promoted over him. By all appearances, his loyalties are with HP; it's hard to imagine a return to Microsoft.

Paul Maritz left Microsoft in 2000 after 14 years in engineering positions. He's gone on to bigger and better things, so it's hard to imagine him leaving his new VMware spinoff, Pivotal, to go back to Microsoft.

Satya Nadella, who's now Exec VP of Microsoft's Cloud and Enterprise group, has been with Microsoft for 21 years, has an outstanding reputation, and carries a solid engineering background. He gets the cloud better than most (certainly better than most at Microsoft). But it's anybody's guess if he could rally the troops -- or impress investors.

Tony Bates, who's now Exec VP of Business Development (read: corporate strategy, customers, and developer support), came into the fold as CEO of Skype when Microsoft bought the company in October 2011. He had phenomenal success turning Skype into a profitable enterprise (hey, he got Microsoft to shell out $8.5 billion to buy it), and by all accounts he's doing well at Microsoft now, too. He has strong cloud experience, going way back.

Stephen Elop's a possibility. He left Microsoft in 2010 as head of the Office effort, and he tried to turn around Nokia. Don't blink now, but it's entirely possible he may pull that company out of the fire. The problem with Elop is that he doesn't have much Microsoft experience -- he was only with the company from January 2008 to September 2010. There's also a question of what will happen to Nokia -- and Elop's relationship with Microsoft -- if/when Microsoft announces its own Surface phone.

I don't think Scott Forstall is in the running: Prickly, almost Sinofsky-like personality. Mark Hurd? Naw, old scandals die hard. Kevin Johnson? He retired once already. Bob Muglia? I wish, but he's with Juniper Networks now and not likely to come back. Reed Hastings has his hands full with Netflix, although he was on the Microsoft board until last October.

One statement in the retirement announcement keeps coming back to me: "We need a CEO who will be here longer term for this new direction." Although most of the world thought, until this morning, that Ballmer would rule Microsoft forever, it now appears as if Bill and Steve are looking for younger blood. Nadella is 44, Bates 46, Elop is 49, Maritz 58.

Would Microsoft go way outside the company to hire somebody with little-to-no Microsoft experience? I put the chances of that around zero.

My best guess at this point is that Satya Nadella and Tony Bates are both in the running. I would also guess that Bill and Steve have already made their choice. Which one?

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.

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