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If Ballmer bolts, who will lead Microsoft?

As Microhoo madness heats up, veteran Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley asks: Where are the company's next leaders coming from?

"Hey! Ho! Time for Ballmer to go," a headline proclaimed on April 29.

My rejoinder: "Hell, no. There are no Softies ready for a promo."

Wired's story attempts to make a case for CEO Steve Ballmer taking the hits for Vista's less-than-stellar market reception, as well as the so-far-unconsummated . "Other CEOs have gotten canned for lesser crimes," Wired concludes.

There's just one problem, as Wired notes in an aside. No one's ready to step up within the company and fill Ballmer's big shoes.

In my new book on Microsoft's future, entitled Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era, I make a similar argument.

When Chairman Bill Gates hangs up his day-to-day hat on June 30, it will be an all-Ballmer, all-the-time show. And there's no heir apparent inside the company to Steve B. Given this void, Microsoft needs Ballmer to stay at the top, at least for the foreseeable future, for continuity and leadership reasons, if nothing else.

Microsoft graphic

Up until now, Microsoft has been a company where science mattered more than sales. Specifically, Gates valued technology more than marketing and built Microsoft to reflect his priorities. Gates' tech vision was evident through the people Microsoft hired and promoted, the projects that got funding, and the amount of commitment the company put behind various initiatives.

The balance of power is set to change drastically, come this summer. And while Ballmer is no technical slouch, he admits that "one of the biggest mistakes I've made over time is not wanting to nurture innovations where I either didn't get the business model or we didn't have it."

In the brave, new post-Gatesian world, who's poised to lead the company? Who is on the fast track at Microsoft these days? Who are the up-and-coming superstars likely to take charge during Microsoft's next 10-plus years? I've asked various Microsoft watchers, partners, customers, and employees these questions, and the fact that few could come up with any immediate suggestions says volumes.

Five years ago, back in 2003, Business 2.0 magazine compiled a list of the 10 most promising rising stars at Microsoft, a group the publication dubbed "The Baby Bills."

Indicative of how quickly things change, that list looks obsolete today. Some of Gates' potential heirs-apparent have left (or been forced out of) the company; several others have been pushed into less visible jobs at Microsoft. The Softie who many thought would be a shoe-in successor to Gates--Eric Rudder--has retreated from a visible position running Microsoft's Server and Tools business, to working in a research incubator while plotting his next move.

Here's a snapshot of the Business 2.0 Baby Bill Class of 2003 and what each of these execs is doing today:

Eric Rudder--Then: senior vice president, Servers and Tools. Now: Allegedly working on a secret distributed operating-system project under Chief Research Officer Craig Mundie.

Chris Jones--Then: corporate vice president, Windows Client Group. Now: corporate vice president of Windows Live Experience Program Management.

J Allard--Then: corporate vice president, Xbox Platform. Now: corporate vice president, Design and Development, Entertainment and Devices Division.

Yusuf Mehdi--Then: corporate vice president, MSN Personal Services and Business Division; and later, chief advertising strategist. Edged out of advertising management as a result of the aQuantive purchase and subsequent Microsoft realignment. Now: senior vice president of Strategic Partnerships.

Steven Sinofsky--Then: senior vice president, Office. Now: senior vice president of Windows and Windows Live Engineering.

Martin Taylor--Then: platform strategist (and Ballmer's chief of staff). Fired by Microsoft allegedly for a company policy violation. Now: operating principal, Vista Equity Partners.

Tami Reller--Then: corporate vice president, marketing and strategy, Business Solutions. Passed over for job running Microsoft Business Solutions unit. Now: chief financial officer, Platforms & Services Division.

From the original "Baby Bills" short list, Allard, Jones, and Sinofsky remain among the core group of influencers at Microsoft (and of these, Allard's current role is rather sketchy, as Rick Thompson, not Allard, is the Zune king at the company).

Along with the three Microsoft presidents--Kevin Johnson, head of Platforms & Services; Jeff Raikes (who will be replaced this fall by Stephen Elop--the head of Business Systems); and Robbie Bach, head of Entertainment & Devices--along with Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, there are a handful of Microsoft managers whose strategies and thinking will help Microsoft make--or miss--a transition into its next phase as more of a software and service provider.

Are any of these individuals next in line to succeed Ballmer? Many Microsoft watchers are doubtful that Ballmer and the board will go inside to find the next Microsoft leader. I tend to agree. Next time Microsoft needs a CEO--which could be at any time the 52-year-old Ballmer decides he's finally had enough--the company might look outside, rather than inside, for fresh top management blood. (For the record, Ballmer has said he plans to stick around at Microsoft for close to a decade or longer--at least until his youngest son is in college.)

What about Ozzie? My gut is Ozzie wants to retreat even further behind the scenes than he is already. The last thing he wants is an OzzieSoft with him anointed as the "next Bill Gates."

Not everyone at Microsoft is quite as shy and retiring, however. Here are some of the young (and not so young) Turks bucking to influence Microsoft's near-term, post-Gates directions:

J Allard Microsoft

J Allard: The closest thing that Microsoft has at the executive level to a hip exec able to appeal to the all-important 16-to-34-year-old mountain-bikeriding, gaming-savvy geek demographic. Allard is a 15-year Microsoft veteran. But what's Allard's job these days? In spite of his lofty-sounding title of corporate vice president, Design and Development, Entertainment and Devices Division, no one really seems to know what Allard is up to these days. Plus, Allard is much more of a "Bill guy" than a "Steve guy."

Craig Mundie Microsoft

Craig Mundie: Chief Research and Strategy Officer Mundie is seen as the No. 2 technology guy at Microsoft. But according to recent rumors, Mundie is none too happy about living in Chief Software Architect Ozzie's shadow and is looking for a way to climb his way up the corporate ladder. Mundie's been way more visible than Ozzie lately on the speaking circuit and is championing Microsoft's move to multicore, among other strategic hot spots.

Satya Nadella Microsoft

Satya Nadella: Sixteen-year Microsoft veteran Nadella has trod a long and winding road inside Microsoft. Nadella currently is corporate vice president in charge of Microsoft's engineering team for Web search, advertising, and commerce--aka, the Windows Live Search, Microsoft adCenter, and subscriptions/points/billing platforms. What will Nadella's role be if MicroHoo comes to pass? Unclear.

Steven Sinofsky Microsoft

Steven Sinofsky: Steven Sinofsky runs engineering for two key teams at Microsoft: Windows Client and Windows Live. He was moved into this role in 2006 for a reason--Microsoft's top brass were tired of being hurt and embarrassed by Microsoft's ongoing failure to release products on a timely basis. So far, Sinofsky's been able to maintain radio silence on most of the projects (Windows 7, IE 8, etc.) he's spearheading.

Kevin Turner Microsoft

Kevin Turner: The former Walmart CIO currently runs field sales and marketing, product support, customer support, branding, advertising, public relations, marketing research, corporate operations, and internal IT at Microsoft. In short, he's one of Microsoft's chief ambassadors to the outside customer world, as well as the uber-boss of nearly 40,000 of Microsoft's 80,000 or so employees.

Even though some shareholders (including some of Microsoft's own employees) believe a change in leadership is what's needed to keep the company relevant in the next five-plus years, it doesn't seem as though Ballmer or the bulk of his inner circle"--aka the "Senior Leadership Team"--is going anywhere. Sometimes, no move just might be the best move.

Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 20 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek, and Baseline. She has kept close tabs on Microsoft strategy, products, and technologies for the past 10 years. In the late 1990s, she penned the award-winning "At The Evil Empire" column for ZDNet, and more recently the Microsoft Watch blog for Ziff Davis.