Kara Swisher

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Will Microsoft Name Its CEO Before the New Year? Weary Employees Hope for Even Sooner. (Poll)

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Here’s the only thing that’s completely clear: The search for a Microsoft CEO has become a bit of a circus over the last few weeks.

First, Ford CEO Alan Mulally seemed to be a shoo-in, issuing a series of cunning non-denial denials about his intent. But that was blown up when the chairman of the car company said the high-profile executive was there to stay — at least through 2014 — while Mulally did his fantastic Cheshire Cat routine. Then, at the end of last week, Ford said that it would hold a last-minute analyst meeting this week, without specifying what the topic was.

Did that mean the candidacy of Mulally was going to be officially ended? Or would the meeting be about the Mustang and not Mulally? Or perhaps that the frontrunner who was fading had gained some wind in the final stages and would race across the finish line for the Microsoft win?

Most certainly, it would not be Qualcomm’s Steve Mollenkopf to win, place or show. Contrary to a report that he would be the dark-horse candidate for Microsoft CEO, he was named CEO of the chipmaker a day later. Oops!

Next dark horse, please trot forward! (At this point, I vote for Bill Gates’s triumphant return, complete with trumpets and flourishes.)

And what of the internal trio of candidates — enterprise chief Satya Nadella, strategy head Tony Bates and Nokia’s Stephen Elop? Nadella has seemingly been all over the place this week, perhaps perfect timing to test out how good his charm can be. His public appearances were obviously planned months in advance, but my verdict is it works and he comes across as still a geek, but a super nice one. Bates and Elop were, in comparison, not in the spotlight.

But not completely, creating a deep uncertainty inside Microsoft, and causing a great deal of consternation among its employees. In dozens of interviews last week, staffers talked about a system that is essentially stopped up, despite increasingly active outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer moving across the organization in a series of ever-louder meetings.

At a meeting of 500 directors and above, he talked about Windows 8 and its failures. In another, he spoke of creating gamer-focused PCs, as if he had years to go in his tenure. In another, he apparently cried at the prospect that there would be no more years.

Employees, though, seem ready for a change — and soon.

“Everyone is just waiting for the decision,” said one high-ranking exec, in what was a common refrain. “Even though we are supposed to be carrying out the new One Microsoft plan that Ballmer created, it’s pretty much a wait-and-see for everyone.”

Said another engineer: “It’s not clear if the company and the new management that was just put into place will stay there with a new CEO, so it’s just easier to look busy without actually being busy.”

And another product manager: “We can’t really wait, since things are moving so fast at other companies, so everyone is hoping for a resolution before the new year … it would be a symbol that change is finally going to come here.”

It goes on and on like that, with everyone I spoke to not really knowing what will happen, up to near the top of the company.

So they await the machinations of the Microsoft board — which seems to have been unable to do one of its key jobs: Having a solid, easy-to-follow succession plan in place before Ballmer announced his pending departure.

Those familiar with the board’s thinking make the excuse that Ballmer was not supposed to leave quite this soon, so such a plan was not properly put in place. Perhaps, although that leaves out the pertinent fact that the directors played a key role in that particular drama.

And, of course, there are those who point the finger at Ballmer himself for quashing all potential CEOs-in-training over the years. Gone, Kevin Johnson. Gone, Bob Muglia. Gone, Robbie Bach. Gone, Ray Ozzie. Gone, Steve Sinofsky.

That last one was perhaps more dramatic than others, but they all pointed in one direction.

And that is: This big decision — perhaps the most significant in Microsoft’s long history — was destined to be a circus or a crazy horse race, or whatever you want to call it.

The funny thing is that calling it — making a CEO choice — would be the best holiday present Microsoft employees could possibly receive. But it might be a gift that will have to wait until next year.

Until we know who this fretting board picks, please take this survey to pick whom you would favor:


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work