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No softies need apply for Microsoft's big opening

Who's in line to become Kevin Johnson's replacement? The answer may go down as one of software giant's most important decisions.

Wanted: Experienced online executive not afraid of challenges. Must be self-starter. Ideal candidate a glutton for punishment, willing to deal with stress, as well as excitable CEO prone to throwing chairs when in foul mood. Huge payout if successful; ritual defenestration if a failure. No phone calls. Send all e-mails to

Now that Kevin Johnson has gone the path of all upwardly mobile executives aching to become CEOs--in his case becoming the next boss at Juniper Networks--who is Microsoft likely to appoint as its next online chief?

Not to get melodramatic on you, but this may rank as Microsoft's most important decision since anointing Steve Ballmer as Bill Gates' replacement in 2000.

Send those resumes my way, folks CNET News

That's because Microsoft's online-services business has been, um, well, a work in progress for far too long. (I recently returned from a vacation abroad, and the glow hasn't fully worn off yet.) While Google extends its domination in search advertising, Microsoft is conceding defeat. The company's CFO said last week during a conference call that Microsoft expected to lose money in online services for the foreseeable future.

Mary Jo Foley says Brian McAndrews, who arrived at Microsoft via its acquisition of Aquantive, is expected to emerge as a "strong candidate." Kara Swisher over at All Things Digital writes that her sources put McAndrews as the leading candidate, while company veteran Yusuf Mehdi is also in the running.

I've seen McAndrews speak on several occasions--the latest being yesterday, during a conference organized by Fortune magazine--and he is impressive in person.

Swisher also suggests that an outsider has a shot.

"More interesting, perhaps, is one of the top outside candidates on the list, former AOL head Jon Miller, who is poised to be added to the--wait for it--Yahoo board, as part of its recent proxy fight settlement (with) activist investor Carl Icahn."

I like the idea of bringing in an outsider, someone presumably with a fresh perspective. In that sense, McAndrews might qualify, albeit with an asterisk. Microsoft acquired his company months ago, and it takes at least a year for the corporate Kool-Aid to have its true effect.

More seriously, McAndrews is just one among many capable online executives with the right resume for this job. Microsoft can afford to be picky. The last thing that Ballmer needs is a reprise of the Michael Hallman affair. (Hallman was hired away from Boeing to become company president, only to get the boot two years later.)

But perhaps holding off on naming an immediate replacement is the more prudent strategy. With six months' worth of Yahoo-yes, Yahoo-no, Yahoo-maybe, this company still seems confused about what its online strategy ought to be.