Game of thrones: The men who would be Ballmer

Many potential CEOs have left Microsoft, even as Steve Ballmer has stayed. But some may still be in the running for the top spot

Nobody knows why Microsoft's Windows chief Steven Sinofsky unexpectedly jumped ship last Monday, despite rampant but unverifiable rumors. But Sinofsky is simply the latest in a long line of potential CEOs who've left Microsoft, as CEO Steve Ballmer's controversial tenure continues with no heir apparent in sight -- and perhaps not desired. Still, those who've left Microsoft could be named Ballmer's successor at some point.

Back in July 2009, Ballmer reorganized Microsoft and named five presidents: Sinofsky was president of the Windows and Windows Live division, Bob Muglia was president of Server and Tools, Qi Lu was president of Online Services, Stephen Elop was president of the Business division, and Robbie Bach was president of the Entertainment and Devices division. Three years later, they're all gone, except for Lu.

Perhaps it's true, as some have alleged, that Ballmer intends to run Microsoft forever. Or maybe the conspiracy theorists are right in saying that Sinofsky's departure is part of a diabolical master plan that will bring him back, Steve Jobs-like, when Microsoft needs him most. But looking around at the current landscape, it's awfully hard to see any successor for Ballmer, either inside or outside the company.

Maybe that's the way he wants it.

Here are the best-known former Microsoft executives who have left in the past four years, and my estimates of who could still run Microsoft as CEO one day:

Jeff Raikes (left in 2008): He has broad experience with Microsoft and the Microsoft way. A Stanford University grad, he spent 27 years with Microsoft, was recruited by Ballmer in 1981, had strong experience in designing the Office programs, was promoted to VP of Office, then retired as president of the Information Worker business line. He left Microsoft to become CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a position he holds today.

Raikes is part-owner of the Seattle Mariners baseball team and the founding donor for the University of Nebraska's School of Computer Science and Management. Of all the former Microsoft execs who maybe potential Ballmer replacements, he's at or near the top of the list.

J Allard (left in 2010): He has wide experience with many parts of Microsoft, but he's best known for his work on the Xbox, Zune, the ill-fated Kin, and the underappreciated Courier two-screen tablet, which might have out-Appled the iPad had it ever come to light. Many people both inside and outside Microsoft remember his groundbreaking white paper "Windows: The Next Killer Application on the Internet," released in 1994, that helped get Microsoft turned toward the cloud.

Allard left Microsoft shortly after he lost a shoot-out with Sinofsky: Allard wanted to push ahead with the two-screen Courier tablet that complemented, rather than replaced, the PC. While Windows focused on getting the job done, Courier was meant to be light on traditional applications, such as email, and instead aimed at creative souls who wanted to sketch, sort photos, or block out a novel. Ballmer finally decided, with Bill Gates' input, to side with Sinofsky, kill the Courier, and go ahead with the new tablet-friendly but still PC-focused Windows 8.

Allard's departing memo, reprinted by Time, remains a classic motivator. But Allard as a CEO? It's hard to envision a free spirit like Allard at the helm of a company that makes most of its money from servers and Office.

Robbie Bach (left in 2010): He and Allard formed quite a team, with Allard covering the engineering side and Bach on the business side. Bach rapidly rose in Microsoft to head the business side of Microsoft Office in the 1990s. When Bach left in May 2010, he was the president of the Entertainment & Devices division, which included Xbox, Zune, Windows Mobile, Microsoft TV, Kin, and Courier. He, too, left Microsoft when Ballmer killed Courier. Bach's now primarily involved in philanthropic pursuits, particularly the Boys & Girls Club of America.

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