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Sizing up Microsoft's new Windows chief

The outgoing Jim Allchin was a Bill Gates person, one analyst says. New guy Kevin Johnson "is fundamentally a Steve (Ballmer) person."

Can Microsoft's top sales executive fill the shoes of one of its most technical leaders?

Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson,

That was the question on some analysts' minds when Microsoft announced Tuesday that Kevin Johnson, its former sales chief, would succeed chief Windows architect Jim Allchin next year when he retires.

Johnson has spent most of his 13 years at Microsoft rising through the company's sales and marketing ranks. He landed the top sales post two years ago and has since helped Microsoft keep up its double-digit growth, an impressive feat for such a large company.

Johnson is also one of six top executives who help chart Microsoft's strategy and direction alongside Chairman Bill Gates and Chief Executive Steve Ballmer as a member of the company's Senior Leadership Team. So when Microsoft handed over Johnson's sales responsibilites last month to its new chief operating officer, a former Wal-Mart Stores executive, Ballmer promised he had big things in store for Johnson.

Despite his talents, analysts said, Johnson may feel stretched in his new role as co-president of Microsoft's Platform Products and Services division.

"Jim Allchin is a very technical person; he's a Bill person," said Rob Helm, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "Kevin is fundamentally a Steve person. He's an excellent business man, but it's a very different skill set than what Allchin had."

Microsoft may have tapped Johnson for the job for that very reason, said Stuart Williams, an analyst at Technology Business Research.

Battling its own unwieldy structure and mounting competitive pressures, Microsoft also said Tuesday it will undertake a sweeping reorganization, folding seven business units into three. The company may be seeking leaders with a more practical, rubber-meets-the-road approach for that task.

"They need to execute, and the previous organization had many internal structural barriers to innovation because there were seven different business units," Williams said.

Indeed, corporate reorganization and restructuring appear to be among Johnson's strengths. As head of worldwide sales, Johnson re-engineered field sales and realigned subsidiary operations in more than 80 countries. He led another restructuring before that as head of North and Latin American sales and marketing.

Still, dramatic changes in leadership are always risky, Helm said.

"Johnson will have to prove his street credibility to his engineering staff when many are looking over the fence longingly at Google," Helm said. "And the timing is difficult, of course, because Windows Vista is still not out the door. Allchin is going to ride it out, but (his departure) is something of a mixed signal."