Next Microsoft CEO needs to come from outside of the shrink-wrapped box

by Steve Blum • ,

Steve and Mini-Steve.

The best news Microsoft has had in many months came Friday with the announcement that CEO Steve Ballmer would be stepping down some time in the next twelve months, and a top level board committee, that includes Bill Gates, will be looking for his successor.

Ballmer took over as CEO in 2000, when Gates began pulling back from day to day management of the company and increasingly focused on tackling the big problems that face mankind via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The company has done well enough financially in that time and maintains its commanding share of desktop operating systems and productivity software.

Unfortunately, that’s not where the market is heading. Unable to gain traction in mobile phones or tablets, and facing steadily growing pressure on the operating system side from Android and, in the server sector, Linux, Microsoft is in the difficult position of being the leader in a consumer and desktop market that’s coasting to a plateau while the mobile and server businesses rapidly accelerate away.

Whoever the new CEO will be, he or she has a tougher job than Steve Jobs faced when he returned to lead Apple in 1997. The PC business that Apple dominated in the early 80s was still very recognisable then: sell beige boxes that sat on desks and ran shrink wrapped applications that did things to files. Jobs had the luxury of blazing a trail to new markets. Ballmer’s successor will have to figure out how to catch the Apples, Googles and Samsungs of the new mobile world.

The worst thing Microsoft could do is promote someone from within. The company needs shock treatment, not a logo refresh. Second best option would be to bring Gates back, but that’s not going to happen. Bill is having too much fun – and success – saving the world. The best choice would be an outsider, to both the company and the desktop market. There are plenty of people in Redmond who understand desktops. They need to be led by someone with vision and experience that comes from another world: mobile, consumer electronics, services.