Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

“Caretaker” Mulally as CEO Remains Inside Bet at Microsoft, but Will a Dark Horse Emerge?

If you talk to any high-ranking person inside Microsoft these days, a pretty strong scenario is trumping all others for who will take over from outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer.

And that is that Ford CEO Alan Mulally remains in the pole position for the job, with the idea that he will be more a “caretaker” type CEO, whose deep experience and inspirational charisma will get the company on the right path, while also training up a number of internal candidates to eventually take over from him.

The top pick among the possible heirs inside for that princeling role: Enterprise chief Satya Nadella.

Also in that mix: COO Kevin Turner, strategy exec Tony Bates and Nokia exec Stephen Elop. All of them, sources said, are considered by many internally to be not quite ready for prime time.

The plus for Mulally? An obvious ability to manage a complex organization, with many moving parts and masses of employees. The minus: He’s not enough of a visionary geek who can grok the massive changes moving through the digital landscape and also understand the complexity of the tech itself.

In other words: He can’t program. He doesn’t Snapchat. But he sure can give a corker of a speech.

Microsoft, many insiders said, might need such a leader as a temporary breather, as it moves away from its longtime leaders, Ballmer and also co-founder and chairman Bill Gates.

Gates, of course, is not going anywhere, and multiple sources said he has become re-engaged at the company of late. Ballmer is another story, as was clear in a recent Wall Street Journal piece, which finally confirmed an earlier AllThingsD story that I wrote about his departure announcement in August that characterized it as more sudden and also included a little push from the board, which Microsoft denied at the time.

In the WSJ piece, Ballmer came off as a bit feckless and a lot maudlin, although others decidedly did not.

That was clearly illustrated by the quotes of board search leader and loud talker John Thompson, who has emerged as a strong voice (too strong, some inside the company think) in the whole corporate drama.

Thompson did a nice bit of verbal jujitsu by noting that the board “didn’t push Steve to step down, but we were pushing him damn hard to go faster.” Also from Thompson, who seems to enjoy tough-love transportation metaphors when dealing with Ballmer: “Either get on the bus or get off,” and, “Hey, dude, let’s get on with it. We’re in suspended animation.”

Speaking of static danger, the board has its work cut out for it over the next weeks to decide on its pick. Directors are meeting in the midst of the company’s annual shareholders event, which takes place today, to cull the list of candidates to a smaller group, said sources close to the situation. The goal, as this site and many others have previously reported, is to name a new CEO before the end of the year.

While the list of names for the job has remained consistent since Ballmer announced in the summer he was stepping down, there are some within Microsoft who are also compiling a list of possible dark horses to ride the company into the future.

“There are a whole bunch of telecom execs all over the globe, who could suddenly appear,” said one, while another continued to hope for the reemergence of former Microsoft exec Paul Maritz, a sentimental favorite internally who has moved onto much greener pastures since he left the company.

I’ve mentioned Maritz before, but such a return seems unlikely, said many sources.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik