After a somewhat bumpy ride as CEO of the world's largest software company the past 13 years, Steve Ballmer plans...
to retire from Microsoft within the next 12 months.
IT industry insiders hope to see more of a visionary leader take over the helm.
Microsoft's Board of Directors has a formed a committee, to be headed by John Thompson, the board's independent director, and which also includes Chairman Bill Gates, to find his replacement.
In an internal memo to employees, Ballmer wrote:
"There is never a perfect time for this type of transition, but now is the right time. My original thoughts on timing would have had my retirement happen in the middle of our transformation to a devices and services company focused on empowering customers in the activities they value most. We need a CEO who will be here longer term for this new direction."
Although stability in an organization is crucial, sometimes change is beneficial, too.
"There's never a good time to do something like this. You always look for stability when you are looking for growth," said Raj Subramanian, CIO of State of Ohio Office of Budget and Management. "But when you have all the market changes and companies are struggling to make changes, a change in leadership will help. Some of the stance that Steve has made before may come into question and for Microsoft that's healthy."
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Ballmer's memo infers that whoever is chosen to replace him will not change the company's new direction as a devices and services company, but some IT professionals professed some anxiety that may not be the case. The unease could mean some enterprise IT shops delay commitments to key products such as Windows 8 or Microsoft's mobile devices.
"Some IT people are going to question how this might affect Microsoft’s new enterprise strategy," said Mike Drips, a Houston-based veteran IT professional specializing in Microsoft platforms. "Before they sink a whole bunch of money into Windows 8 and their [mobile] devices, they might want to know if the new guy coming in changes course."
Whether Microsoft can catch up to competitors in the mobile market remains to be seen.
"The corporate world has been using Windows for the longest time," said Subramanian. "The challenge, as Microsoft still knows, is that they are lagging behind in the search and mobile market. Desktop sales are decreasing because tablets are taking over. Change is always welcome."
"With so much talent everywhere else, just okay ended up not being good enough, and I think that's [Ballmer's] legacy."
-- Jonathan Hassell, president of North Carolina-based 82 Ventures
They don't see an able successor among Microsoft’s existing executives, and they hold little hope the company can find an outsider capable of managing a $70 billion company with enough charisma to convey a more compelling vision.
"If you bring up one of the long-time executives there now, would this just perpetuate some of the strategies they have?" said one IT professional who requested anonymity. "And I can't think of anyone from the outside who would want to throw themselves into such a politically charged environment like Microsoft at a time like this."
Ballmer's triumphs and foibles
While Ballmer ably guided Microsoft's server-based businesses over the past decade, many have questioned his decision making when it came to the company’s flagship desktop operating systems and applications businesses, and its foray into making tablets and phones.
Evidence of Ballmer's lack of vision in the mobile space is reflected in a 2007 interview when he commented on the prospects for Apple Inc.'s iPhone: "There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. [...] But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I'd prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get."
Of course, in 2013, it's Microsoft with 3% of the smartphone market share playing third fiddle to Apple's iOS and Google’s Android platforms.
"To say that they did well in mobile is to say the dinosaurs had a field day when the meteors hit," said Jack Gold, an enterprise consultant and founder of J. Gold and Associates, based in Northborough, Mass. "It was pretty much a disaster."
Gold added however that Ballmer was "hugely successful" in his first decade, calling him a "master salesman." But he lost touch with the marketplace and the constant infighting among high-level executives, many of whom left or were forced out, didn’t help his cause, Gold said.
Twitter reacts to Ballmer retirement news
As the news broke, many chimed in on Twitter with their thoughts on the announcement.
"His seeming lack of vision was destructive. More importantly than that, users and enterprises were focused on the fact that [Microsoft] didn't have a long term vision that would lead them into the next decade," Gold said.
Some believe his shortsightedness may bust the company.
"The best that can be said of Steve Ballmer is that at least he went down with his sinking ship," said Michael Beckley, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Appian Corp., a business process management company based in Reston, Va.
That said, Microsoft delivers valuable software to billions of customers around the world and Ballmer ran the company during a lot of the time Microsoft was delivering that value, said Jonathan Hassell, president of North Carolina-based 82 Ventures and a SearchWindowsServer.com contributor.
However, Ballmer won't go down in history as a prophetic leader the likes of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
"I don't think Steve Ballmer was a great CEO. I don't think Steve Ballmer was a bad CEO. I think he was just okay," Hassell said. "And with so much talent everywhere else, just okay ended up not being good enough, and I think that's his legacy."
Ed Scannell, James Furbush, Diana Hwang, Jeremy Stanley and Colin Steele contributed to this report.