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As Microsoft CEO Rumors Continue to Churn, One Thing Is Clear: Gates Will Be More Visible at Microsoft

Outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer? Not so much.

On Friday, the latest chatter in the ongoing rumor mill that has become the Microsoft CEO search began again, with sudden noise that the new leader would be announced sometime in the next few days.

What ho? (There goes my holiday weekend!)

I got several calls myself, with sources insisting they heard it from major investors and other Wall Street sources who had been assured that the board had made its choice and would soon reveal it.

Already, there was new speculation to feed this latest, such as a Bloomberg’s addition of Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg to the candidate pile last week.

He is an interesting name to add to the list, which still includes insiders such as Satya Nadella, Tony Bates and Stephen Elop. Of course, the biggest outside name, Ford CEO Alan Mulally, recently dropped out just as loudly as he entered these geek sweepstakes last year.

But inquiries about a naming in the next few days quickly came up with peanuts, from sources both inside and outside Microsoft, who said the announcement would more likely be toward the end of this month at the earliest.

This makes sense — on a lot of levels –especially after the hurry-up-and-wait blog post by search head director John Thompson in December, in an attempt to tamp down the chatter around the high-profile selection.

Even if we completely put aside the big football playoff game today between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks — no Redmond, Wa.-based Microsoft CEO may be selected for several hours this afternoon, at least — undue rush now seems out of character for the company. (Except maybe trotting him out as part of a victory celebration at the end, if Seattle wins — as if, GeekWire!)

In addition, as I had previously noted, Microsoft chairman and co-founder Bill Gates — a key CEO decision maker, no matter how much others insist not — has traveled to Davos in Switzerland for the important gathering of the international power elite at the World Economic Forum this week. Also, his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation plan to release its high-profile annual letter tomorrow, one that garners a lot of attention and did not seem likely to be stomped upon via a press explosion about the CEO.

Announcing a CEO now would also collide with Microsoft’s quarterly earnings report set for Thursday, which seems very messy. Still, one source who passed along the new chatter said it also might be a good place to announce a new leader.

That sounds chaotic to me — as chaotic as the selection has been — although it is likely that the new CEO is coming soon enough to replace outgoing leader Steve Ballmer. While his tenure has been marked by improvements in profits and sales, it is now too contrasted by a glacial — even willfully resistant — pace of innovation around key emerging products, most especially mobile devices.

Thus, it’s long past time for him to move along and end this slo-mo exit that many investors and employees have found excruciating. And, despite owning about four percent of the company, people familiar with the situation also expect Ballmer to step down as a director when the new CEO is named.

(Out too, it goes without saying, will be those closest to him — but more on that when the time comes.)

With Ballmer fading away, that leaves the question of what the role of Gates — one of the most iconic figures in tech and most certainly at Microsoft — will have going forward. He also owns an approximate four percent stake in the company.

While some investors have dropped hints in the media that he too should head for the exit, according to my sources, he is more likely to remain visible, depending on the new leader, as well as more active within the company.

This, of course, has its pluses and minuses, many sources reminded me, and has to be carried off carefully by Gates and the new leader.

Although there remains a strong bring-Bill-back emotional pull among more than a few employees, surrendering to the romantic notion of the founder’s return is risky. Gates has largely been absent from Microsoft for six years. He left day-to-day work on June 27, 2008 (see his hysterical last day video below that debuted at CES months before that, which is also depicted in the photo above).

And though he has been very much involved as Microsoft’s chairman, Gates has largely devoted himself to his foundation and his work as the world’s most active philanthropist. It’s most definitely been a new Gates — kinder, gentler, wiser, although still as energetic and, of course, hyperactive.

But since the Ballmer’s departure announcement last year — done more suddenly than he had expected, as I reported when it happened, and with Gates’ support — he has become a more active presence at the company, according to nearly every single executive I have spoken to.

While it has certainly not turned into a daily job, Gates has spent a lot more time on the Microsoft campus buttonholing those inside, Microsofties who have left, and even a few execs in Silicon Valley, about their thoughts on the company’s future.

This is no surprise given Gates’ very active mind, and many welcome his presence as playing an important role in infusing the company with a renewed sense of urgency.

It’s very simple: Bill Gates opens doors. Bill Gates is a tech legend. Bill Gates has gravitas.

But others worry, since he has also been away from the sector for a long time and it could serve to slow down progress, rather than speed it up.

There are many positive examples of the return of founders — at Apple (where it worked!), Google (where it worked!). But Yahoo’s Jerry Yang found that out — as a CEO and later when he stayed at the company as a key player — when the founder speaks, everything can also stop dead.

In addition, if it appears as if Gates is there to handhold a new CEO, that’s also an issue for that person (doubtlessly a man, but wouldn’t it be something if Microsoft surprised us with a woman?).

Consider Nadella, the enterprise chief whom Gates knows well and likes. The main criticism of him is that he has no experience as a public company CEO. Standing too closely to Gates won’t help, especially since Gates himself was not known as the smoothest of business operators. In that vein, techie Gates looks much better next to a business type like Bates.

Or what about a new guy? Again, here, the presence of too much Gates could be a distraction and even a hindrance — the issue of his and Ballmer’s continued influence has been much debated. Bill Gates is a tech celebrity. He will suck up all the oxygen in the room.

You see the issue. Still, there is no question that in moving Microsoft to the next stage in a decisive and definitive way — everything this CEO search has not been — most welcome a Gates assist, even as they could be hurt by it.

Until the search is over, watch this fantastic mockumentary of Gates’ last day:

This article originally appeared on

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