Photo: Associated Press
People have been calling for Steve Ballmer to step down for years. But with IBM passing Microsoft in market cap, Microsoft’s seemingly overpriced Skype buy, and tablets presenting the first real threat to Microsoft’s core Windows business in history, the critics are getting louder and more prominent.
Fund manager and major shareholder David Einhorn kicked off the latest round last night.
But the question nobody seems to be able to answer is: who would replace him?
A lot of people look at Steve Jobs and Apple and think that Bill Gates is the logical choice — if he could be persuaded to come back full time, which is doubtful.
But Gates isn’t totally blameless either — he’s been Chairman for Ballmer’s entire tenure, and could have asked him to step down at any time.
There are plenty of candidates within the company, too, starting with Windows chief Steve Sinofsky. He’s a technical guy who can ship products on time, and has led both of the company’s core businesses — Office and now Windows.
But if Microsoft really wants to turn itself around, it needs a new face in the CEO chair. Here are some ideas, ranging from serious to silly.
Plus: He led Microsoft's critical Business Division (Office, Exchange, other business software) for almost a decade before leaving to join Gates at his foundation. Before that, he had leadership roles in Microsoft's sales force, and knows the company's business like the back of his hand.
Minus. Not really fresh blood -- Raikes comes from the same background and has a lot of the same biases and ideas as Steve Ballmer.
Plus: Mobile is the most important component of Microsoft's future, and Elop is the most important person to that strategy -- outside Microsoft. Plus, he ran the Business Division at Microsoft so he understands the company's important enterprise software customers, and his prior experience at Macromedia (which was bought by Adobe) could give Microsoft a more Web-centric perspective.
Minus: He's actually kind of a Microsoft insider, having just left in October. But he was at the company for less than two years, and managed to parlay that position into the leader of the world's biggest mobile company, Nokia. Those kinds of political skills could serve Microsoft well in its dealings with partners and regulators.
Plus: He helped turn HP around after the disastrous reign of Carly Fiorina. He knows the PC business. He knows the enterprise business. HP is one of Microsoft's longest running and most loyal partners. It would really piss Larry Ellison off.
Minus: Unresolved personal issues mean he might not be perceived as the right 'grown up' to lead the world's third-largest tech company.
Plus: Under his tenure from 1999 through 2009, Symantec grew its total shareholder return more than 800%, earning him the #19 spot on the Harvard Business Review's 2010 list of best performing CEOs. He knows the PC industry, and his 28 years of experience at IBM before Symantec make him an old player selling to enterprises. Plus, a win for diversity.
Minus: Symantec is a simpler company with fewer products and markets than Microsoft, and Thompson is getting close to retirement age at 62.
Plus: He's a technical guy like Gates, and Gates originally picked him as his successor. Giving Ozzie a chance to hire technical people for leadership positions throughout the company and to put big money where it belongs, like cloud computing, would certainly be a fresh start.
Minus: Apart from inventing Lotus Notes, which was bought by IBM, he's never had a real big success. Groove was interesting technically but hard to explain to IT departments, and he never actually led a product group at Microsoft. Plus, he's known as more of a thinker than a shipper.
Plus: Hiring Rubin would reverse one of the worst mistakes Microsoft made in the last decade: buying Danger (which Rubin cofounded) for a reported $500 million and then wasting its people on the ill-fated Kin phone. Rubin lives and breathes mobile and built a successful business for Google in less than three years. He recently started hiring his old Danger teammates to build more hardware.
Plus, it would be a huge loss for Google.
Minus: He doesn't have any experience in enterprise software -- Microsoft's core business -- and he probably wouldn't be persuaded to leave Google anyway.
Plus: OK, his cool-guy makeover may have been a little bit of a pose (as this old shot shows), but he was one of the first employees at Microsoft to recognise the importance of the Internet, and helped convince Gates to get on board. He worked on Windows for a few years, so he understands Microsoft's most important business.
When appointed by Ballmer to lead the Xbox team in 2000, he pushed hard for it NOT to run Windows -- a big break for Microsoft's Windows-first culture -- and to have a built-in Ethernet port to connect to the Internet. He was also a big early advocate for Xbox Live -- the dedicated online game service that was its main early edge on Sony.
Minus: The Xbox was a really expensive investment that still hasn't recouped. He might have to go back to using his full name before investors and employees would take him seriously.
Plus: He did it once, he could do it again.
Minus: Over Bill Gates's dead body. Plus, he's 69 -- not exactly fresh blood.
Plus: You want fresh thinking? He founded Napster when he was 19 -- a technically elegant service that upended an industry. Then he built Plaxo, which gave him at least some experience in business software. Then he was one of the early believers in Facebook.
Minus: He's never led anything big and complicated like Microsoft, and that Facebook movie portrayed him as a party hound.
Plus: He's smart, he's young, he's highly technical, he idolizes Bill Gates, and Microsoft owns a small piece of Facebook.
Minus: There's probably not enough money in the world to get him to take the job. Then again, if Microsoft waits long enough and its market share keeps on dropping, perhaps Facebook will buy able to buy it.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.