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Ballmer departure could disrupt Microsoft's fragile transition plans

Mark Hachman | Aug. 30, 2013
Microsoft's CEO couldn't have picked a more sensitive time to pack up his boxes.

Moving forward, the balancing act that Microsoft must walk is perhaps best summed up by this quote from a fund manager quoted by Bloomberg: "Someone starting near the first of the year would be able to make some decisions in time for the next holiday season," Pat Becker Jr. said. "Then again maybe that's too much to expect--expecting someone to turn around a company like this that quickly."

Hey, at least Microsoft had the right idea (if not execution) with the Zune.

Now that Windows 8, the Xbox One, and new versions of Office and Windows Server have either been released or announced, Microsoft's board of directors obviously feels that the company is steady enough to maintain its balance while a new head is put in place. But I disagree: While Microsoft's enterprise businesses are on stable footing, Windows 8.1 and its follow-ups still need a steady hand guiding them forward (if not fixing their biggest mistakes).

And that's just the tip of Microsoft's problematic iceberg. Windows Phone apps are struggling. Windows 8 apps are struggling. The Xbox One isn't even out yet, but it almost lost the battle of public opinion to Sony's console. And if Microsoft is committed to all of these platforms, the teams working on them need to know they're headed down the right path.

Meanwhile, Ballmer just flattened the entire company's organization, orienting it around technologies, not products. Executives of key, strategic importance have been only been in their new roles on the order of weeks.

Ugh. What a mess. It's hard not to look at how hard Ballmer shoved Microsoft in the direction of a cohesive, unfied experience, and then wonder, "OK, what now?" Either Microsoft continues down its path--and if it does, why isn't Ballmer still running the ship?--or it heads off on a tangent, essentially writing off years of product development.

It's been a rough few months for Wintel: AMD, Intel, and now Microsoft have recently weathered CEO transitions. On the outside, at least, Intel has appeared to have negotiated those seas the smoothest. However, CTO Justin Rattner said he would retire, and processor chief Dadi Perlmutter moved into a specialist role. "They're both gone," one Intel exec commented this week. (Though it must be noted that an Intel spokesman says both are still employed by the company.)

Inevitably, someone at Microsoft who thinks he or she deserves the top job is going to be passed over. So who leaves then?

Microsoft may indeed have a bright future ahead of it, as Shaw opines. But looking back, it certainly seems like Microsoft could have paved the way for an orderly CEO transition during the Windows 7 years. Yeah, hindsight's 20/20 and all that. Let's just hope Microsoft's board sees just as clearly, looking ahead.


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