Today, Microsoft board member John Thompson posted that the company had made "progress" on the search to replace CEO Steve Ballmer, who surprised Microsoft-watchers by announcing his retirement on August 23. (Ballmer had said numerous times that he'd stick around until 2017 or so.)
Thompson said that Microsoft had started with a list of 100 candidates, narrowed them down to about 20 interview subjects, then winnowed them further to an unnamed number. "I expect we’ll complete our work in the early part of 2014," he concluded. Cue sighs of relief from bloggers and business journalists everywhere -- now we can spend the holidays without checking our Twitter feed every five minutes to make sure we don't miss the announcement.
With this announcement, it seemed like a good time to look at the rumors that have cropped up over the last few months -- both from official news sources and rumors on the Silicon Valley cocktail party circuit.
Insiders: Satya Nadella seems to have emerged as the leading internal candidate, according to reports from AllThingsD, Bloomberg, and others. Nadella has a good combined consumer-enterprise pedigree -- he ran Bing before coming over to lead enterprise servers and more recently the new Cloud & Enterprise group, which was created under Ballmer's final One Microsoft reorg. He's also got a good understanding of how the whole company works and the One Microsoft vision -- at a recent meeting for financial analysts, he talked about his own business, like the other execs, then put it into context with what some of the other folks talked about. Ace Microsoft reporter Mary Jo Foley interviewed Nadella a couple days ago, and he gave some pretty good insights into how Microsoft works (for instance, Ballmer and Gates expect you to defend your ideas against aggressive challenges), but no insight into the CEO search. But in recent days, I've heard from two people who follow Microsoft that Nadella will not be the candidate, so go figure.
Over at AllThingsD, Kara Swisher -- who's done extensive reporting on the CEO hunt since it started -- still thinks former Skype CEO Tony Bates has a good chance, an opinion shared by Infoworld's Woody Leonhard, who suspects the last round of speculation about Bates was started as a trial balloon by Microsoft's PR team. (Maybe. I tend to think most of these leaks start with the financial community.) COO Kevin Turner was also named in a Bloomberg report, although I'd be stunned if he got the job -- he comes from outside Microsoft (Wal-Mart) and is not a technical or product visionary.
As far as I can tell, there haven't been any other credible rumors about internal candidates, although I'd be surprised if services boss Qi Lu (a former Yahoo exec who ran Bing since Nadella moved over) and devices chief Julie Larson-Green were not in the initial list of 100, at least.
The car guy: Update 1/9/2013: Mulally has officially removed himself from the running, and has said he'll remain at Ford through 2014. The Wall Street Journal reports that he was considering the job, but was concerned about leaks he thought were coming from the board, as well as with Bill Gates's continued involvement.
The external name that keeps cropping up is Ford CEO and former Boeing chief Alan Mulally, who met with Ballmer at a Starbucks on Christmas Eve 2012 for an advisory session, the Wall Street Journal reported. When asked about the job, Mulally has given a series of non-denial denials, although director Edsel Ford said Mulally was not leaving the company before the end of 2014.
Perhaps the most interesting speculation about Mulally comes from former Microsoft engineer Hal Berenson, who predicts Bill Gates will step down as Chairman next year, with Mulally replacing him and somebody else coming in as CEO. Berenson points out that no outside CEO would want to run Microsoft with the founder breathing down his neck, and Gates is almost totally focused on his foundation anyway. Why not start fresh?
The return of the native: There's a lot of speculation that with Ballmer out of the way, some of the top execs who left Microsoft under his reign might be coming back. Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, who spent ?a few years running Microsoft's Office business, came up early in the selection process, but his name has seldom been mentioned since. But if Elop has already been selected, that could certainly be a logical reason for the delay, as Microsoft probably wouldn't officially deem him CEO until the Nokia deal closes. (Note: I'm so skeptical about Elop's chances, I left him out of this article originally, and none of the other CITEworld writers who I consulted mentioned him either -- it must've been a mental block.)
Former Microsoft server boss Bob Muglia recently left Juniper Networks, and Juniper CEO Kevin Johnson (who ran sales, online services, and Windows for Microsoft at various times) is also on his way out, while Steven Sinofsky has been in the spotlight quite a bit recently as an advisor to Microsoft competitor Box. I was apparently alone in suggesting somebody with a pure consumer pedigree like J Allard, but I still think he'd be an interesting choice.
But this is all fantasy -- I doubt any of these folks would take the job even if it were offered. It's hard to return to an old love.
And as much as a Jobsian return by Bill Gates would be a great story, everything I've heard and read says he's just not interested in doing that job again. He has bigger problems to solve at the Foundation -- like curing malaria -- and the Microsoft today is different enough from the Microsoft of yesteryear that he probably wouldn't be the best savior anyway.
Dark horse candidates: For some reason Sheryl Sandberg keeps coming up on the rumor circuit, but it would be an enormous step up for her in terms of complexity, and it's hard to imagine a non-engineer getting the kind of respect from the troops that Microsoft's next CEO needs. AllThingsD's Swisher suggested VMWare CEO Pat Gelsinger, and it's certainly possible that he or another enterprise company's boss will get the nod. What about John Thompson, the boardmember who's leading the search? He's got the pedigree, with almost 30 years of experience at IBM and a stint as CEO of Symantec, and he's reportedly the one who urged Ballmer to move faster or move on.
Out of the running: Windows chief Terry Myerson recently said he was not on the list, and a report about Qualcomm COO Steve Mollenkopf was squashed within 24 hours when Qualcomm named him CEO-in-waiting. We've read and heard independently that former Microsoftie Paul Maritz is not interested -- though beloved by some old-time Microsofties, Maritz seems happy as the CEO of platform as a service firm Pivotal, a spinoff from VMware, where he was most recently CEO. Bloomberg also reports that eBay CEO John Donohoe was approached but declined, and we've heard the same about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.
My prediction: Of the people on this list, I'd go with Nadella with Mulally as Chairman. But in fact I think it will be somebody whose name hasn't come up yet.