Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Would Ray Ozzie Take On(line) for the Microsoft Team?

One thing is absolutely true: It is Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and only Ballmer who knows for sure whom he is most interested in to take over the dicey job of head of the software giant’s long-suffering online services business.

But there is a movement afoot among its developers and other execs at Microsoft (MSFT) to push for Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie (pictured here), who replaced Founder Bill Gates in the job just over two years ago.

Ozzie’s role at Microsoft has been to think the big thoughts about where computing is going, and he has been integral to the company’s vision of providing “software plus services.”

Essentially, that boils down to Internet-accessed software–which is Microsoft’s longtime cash cow–a kind of mash-up that plays to the company’s strengths.

But some think there is no bigger puzzle for Microsoft to finally solve now than to figure out how to finally succeed in the online space.

Microsoft’s online unit lost $1.2 billion in the past fiscal year, double what it lost in 2007, with quarter after quarter of disappointment, even as rival Google (GOOG) and Microsoft’s acquisition quarry Yahoo (YHOO) have raked in the profits.

That’s why some think Ballmer should put Ozzie in charge. With a long history of being a strong product exec, he also is a well-respected leader throughout Microsoft and, perhaps more importantly, the tech industry.

“We need a real star to shake up the status quo,” said one Microsoft employee, in a sentiment voiced by many BoomTown spoke to. “Ballmer has to put someone who can command the attention and respect of all the parts of Microsoft, which just can’t seem to get it together in our online business.”

But Ballmer (pictured here), said other sources, might be loathe to remove Ozzie from his overall tech guru role and place him in such a grinding and potentially thankless job.

There are other internal candidates at Microsoft for the opening, which was just created after the sudden departure of Platforms and Services Division President Kevin Johnson earlier this week.

With Johnson’s departure, Microsoft announced it would break up the unit into two parts. One will be a Windows/ Windows Live group, headed by Ballmer and run by a trio of execs, and the other will include online services such as search, MSN and online advertising.

There are several insiders quite interested in taking on that daunting task, said sources.

They include Senior Vice President Brian McAndrews, who runs Microsoft’s Advertising and Publisher Solutions Group and who came to the company via its $6 billion acquisition of ad firm aQuantive. He is widely seen at Microsoft as having the leading edge for the position.

Strategic Partnerships SVP Yusuf Mehdi, who has run online businesses for Microsoft before, is also a contender.

Ballmer has also put feelers out to Web leaders all over Silicon Valley of late, including former Facebook exec Owen Van Natta, to come and refurbish its Internet arm. Sources said Ballmer is also interested in execs like former CNET head Shelby Bonnie, as well as others.

One of the leading outside candidates was former AOL (TWX) head Jon Miller, who, sources said, told Ballmer yesterday that he does not want to be considered.

In fact, Miller is now likely to join the board of Yahoo as part of a deal the Internet company struck with activist investor Carl Icahn to cease his proxy fight.

Yahoo was, not surprisingly, top of mind in Ballmer’s speech before financial analysts yesterday at Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., HQ.

Not surprisingly, Ballmer went out of his way to pooh-pooh Yahoo–a behavior that looks like it will become Microsoft’s latest weapon of choice for denigrating Yahoo and tanking its stock, in the wake of Yahoo’s rejection of Microsoft’s initial bid to buy the company outright and then, just its search business.

Pointedly calling the important search arena a “two-horse race” between Microsoft and Google–despite the fact that Yahoo is the No. 2 player, with a market share more than double Microsoft’s–Ballmer sounded more like a spurned swain for Yahoo’s affections.

Trotting out his somewhat inexplicable distinction of the Yahoo bid being “a tactic, not a strategy”–whatever!–Ballmer said: “We had a set of principles, we talked about them, it didn’t work out. … Fine, we’re done. We can move on.”

It seems Neil Sedaka was right: Breaking up is hard to do. As a parting shot, even though he was careful to leave the door open to future talks with Yahoo, Ballmer added: “People say ‘you have to buy Yahoo.’ … No, we don’t.”

Except Microsoft, um, does.

In any case, what the company will definitely do is spend more piles of money on its online business–an unspecified $500 million going forward, to be exact, which Ballmer said was critical to Microsoft’s future.

“There is this huge, huge, huge new opportunity around the Internet and online and we have to embrace that opportunity and invest in that opportunity,” Ballmer said.

That’s why some think Ozzie would be perfect for the job, now that the once fast-rising Johnson is gone.

He left, sources said, due to the collapse of the Yahoo deal, an effort for which Johnson served as point man.

Sources said that if the deal went through, Johnson would have run the Yahoo business, noting he has long indicated he wanted higher-level experience.

He will be getting that in his new job as CEO of Juniper Networks (JNPR), a quick move that many sources said surprised Ballmer and irked him (and things were already tense due to the failure of the Yahoo deal).

“Ballmer has to have a win here,” said one Microsoft source. “Even he can’t afford to miss again in this important space.”

That is the other certainty related to Microsoft’s rocky road on the Web: No, he cannot.

Please see this disclosure related to me and Google.

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