The evaluations of Steve Ballmer's 33 years at Microsoft are winding down, with the focus shifting to who will replace him within the next 12 months.
It's a job that requires a rare combination of talents, experience and intellect. The odds maker Ladbroke has Stephen Elop, former Microsoft Office head and now best friend of the company as CEO of Windows Phone spearhead Nokia, as the leading contender, followed by current COO Kevin Turner. Several other current and former Microsoft executives are among the top 10.
Outside contenders in Ladbroke's betting pool include former Microsoft board member and current Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, eBay CEO John Donahoe and throwaways like Apple designer Jony Ive and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey.
At the bottom of the list, just ahead of Apple CEO Tim Cook at 100-1 odds, is Bill Gates at 50-1.
Whatever the odds, it seems unlikely that Gates will re-enter the ring. Company officials are saying "no way" to his return to the CEO role. He will continue to advise from his lofty board seat and have the final say in who becomes the next Ballmer.
Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, however, is convinced that Gates is the only person right for the job at this juncture, despite the fact that as Microsoft's board chairman and an adviser on key development projects he shares responsibility with Ballmer for the company's successes and failures in recent years.
"There is no clear candidate with the visionary skills to turn the company around other than Bill Gates," Benioff told CNET. "He wouldn't just be a magnet for a new vision, but for a talent pool of leadership."
Benioff suggested that Gates become more of an interim CEO, like Steve Jobs was when he returned to Apple after a 10-year exile, for 36 months.
Benioff has not been Microsoft's biggest fan during his career, beginning at Oracle and then at the cloud-based software pioneer Salesforce.com, which he co-founded in 1999 and which has been ranked as the most innovative company by Forbes for the last three years. In 2008, he described Microsoft as a "dinosaur" that has been "trying to hold onto their past more than trying to create their future."
Microsoft has been hard at work trying to create the future, but with less success than hoped. The most recent example is Surface, the Microsoft designed and manufactured tablet that was supposed to be the company's answer to Apple's iPad. In the last quarter, Microsoft had to take a $900 million charge against unsold Surface inventory. In an effort to protect the Windows franchise, Microsoft Office is unavailable for the iPad and Android-powered tablets. That tactic hasn't slowed down sales of rivals' tablets.
But Benioff contends that Gates is a different person than when he left in 2008. "He could come back with new ways to run the company, let [his wife] Melinda run the charitable foundation, make changes and identify the next leader to come, with a clear window of three years."
Whatever Gates' future, he will be at the table to set a new course. The reality is that the playing field leveled, at the expense of the Windows platform, as the shift to the Internet, cloud computing, mobile devices and social networking accelerated over the last decade. Whoever gets the CEO job will need to figure out how to make Microsoft loved or needed by the masses and feared by competitors for a new generation of consumers and business users brought up on Google search, with an iOS or Android phone in their pocket. Whoever follows Ballmer will have to map out a plan that doesn't have sacred cows and builds a culture around what Microsoft needs to be in 10 years.
Benioff offered some advice for the next CEO of Microsoft. "When it's time to throw away the past, you have to be ready. If you come in with preconceived notions and mantras that are no longer valid, you are setting up to fail," he said. "You need to be able to re-conceptualize the future. We value industry leaders who can do this effectively."