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Next Microsoft CEO: After Thanksgiving, before Christmas?

The absence of news about Steve Ballmer's replacement continues but perhaps not much longer. For the rank-and-file, the word can't come soon enough.

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Ford CEO Alan Mulally, reportedly the top candidate to be Microsoft's next CEO.

After Thanksgiving, before Christmas?

Wishful thinking or not, that's the water cooler talk inside Microsoft. The company's rank and file expect to learn of Steve Ballmer's replacement between the two big end-of-year holidays, said a source in a position to know.

There's a measure of urgency for Microsoft's board of directors to make known its choice soon. Ballmer revealed in late August that he planned to step down as chief executive sometime within the subsequent 12 months and the resulting information vacuum during the interregnum has begun to manifest itself in troubling ways.

"Within the enterprise sales group there's a sense that we're not going to make any bold investments until there's a decision about Steve's successor," said the source.

That doesn't mean people are playing Parcheesi until 2 before lighting out for the golf course. But the source talked about what could best be described as a sense of suspended animation setting in among some employees and managers as they wait to learn about the new boss's strategy.

A spokesman said that the company had no comment on the CEO search. The board of directors may be vetting a dark horse candidate but the leading roster of candidates is so far said to include Ford's Alan Mulally, Nokia's Stephen Elop, Microsoft business development head, Tony Bates, and former Microsoft exec Paul Maritz. John Thompson, the highly-regarded former Symantec CEO who heads the board committee searching for a Ballmer replacement, early on took himself out of the running.

Meanwhile, the internal guessing game continues. During the company's annual shareholder's meeting on Wednesday, Bill Gates acknowledged that the board has met with "a lot" of CEO candidates so far without naming names.

The internal scuttlebutt at Microsoft is that the job remains Mulally's, if he wants it.