With Muglia gone, who will succeed Ballmer?

Microsoft's ranks of experienced senior executives have thinned considerably -- will Steve Sinofsky be the last man left standing?

Speculation has run rife about Bob Muglia's departure as president of Microsoft's Server and Tools Business. Nobody knows for sure if Muglia bailed or got pushed -- rather, the people who know aren't telling -- but the net result is the same: Steve Ballmer has only one heir apparent left. Cue Steve Sinofsky.

Three of Microsoft's presidents and some of its most senior executives have departed in the past nine months. Prior to Muglia's announcement, Robbie Bach's avatar fled the Xbox arcade and Stephen Elop jumped out of the Office frying pan into the Nokia fire. And Ray Ozzie's gone as resident visionary and handpicked Gates successor.

These departures leave three presidents: Steve Sinofsky, of Windows and Windows Live fame; Qi Lu, president of the Online Services Division covering Bing and online advertising; and Andy Lees, president of Mobile Communications. Kurt DellBene has replaced Elop, and Don Mattrick has stepped in for Bach. Lu has only been with Microsoft for a little over two years, while Lees, DelBene, and Mattrick became presidents in October.

While it's entirely possible that Microsoft will be able to grow or grope a new CEO by the time Ballmer departs, Sinofsky currently is the only candidate in sight.

Some industry pundits say that Muglia's departure won't make any difference to Microsoft's customers. I disagree. Although I never worked directly with him, the people I know who have worked with Muglia admire, respect, and even trust him. As you undoubtedly know, that's an exceedingly rare description for interactions with a senior Microsoft executive. In the short term, Muglia's replacement has huge shoes to fill.

In the long term, it's hard to believe that anyone will be able to maintain the level of personal integrity that Muglia takes with him, the kind of integrity that ripples through an organization, from the top down.

Sinofsky also boasts a serious technical background -- he's still widely respected by old hands like me for pioneering work on the Microsoft Foundation Classes, 15 years ago. When Excel and Word combined in a shotgun wedding, Sinofsky became known as "Mr. Office," first gluing the two together, then leading the charge for Office 2000, XP, 2003, and the ribbon-festooned Office 2007. 

More than any other individual, Sinofsky's been responsible for growing two $10 billion-plus Microsoft businesses, first Office and then -- for the past four years -- Windows, Windows Live, and Internet Explorer. The success of Windows 7 on so many fronts speaks volumes about his technical leadership abilities.

As the last man standing, Sinofsky bears the weight of much of Microsoft's future. It'll be interesting to see what happens to Sinofsky after Windows 8 hits the streets in a few years.

This article, "With Muglia gone, who will succeed Ballmer?" was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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