Why 'One Microsoft' may be better with two CEOs

Summary:As Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer celebrates 14 years at the software giant's helm, a new boss is slated to land in the next few weeks. But what if there were two?

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Image: CNET

Mulally out . Mollenkopf out . Perhaps,  Vestberg in ?

As Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer celebrated 14 years at the company's top spot on Monday, speculation remains over who will replace him to steer the world's most well-known software giant through its toughest period yet.

Recent nuggets from the rumor mill pick out Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg as the latest in-the-running candidate to be Ballmer's successor.

But we're still no closer to finding out who will take the top role at a company that -- despite recent enterprise and consumer-focused troubles over Windows 8 -- still draws in significant profits quarter-over-quarter.

Microsoft isn't going anywhere any time soon, nor is Ballmer -- if they can't find a suitable replacement.

Vestberg has an impressive resume and a wealth of industry knowledge. He oversaw the dismantling of Ericsson's decade-long mobile devices joint venture with Sony, and has worked in every part of the technology company, according to Bloomberg, which first broke the story.

But his choosing was likely to come as a "surprise" to many on Wall Street, Reuters says.

The software giant is structured as one of the more fractionated in the industry, which shifted even further in its recent July management reorganization — making it more complicated to read than its previous five set divisions. And that still doesn't include the soon-to-be-included Nokia's devices and services unit, which has yet to complete but has already been given the thumbs-up from European and U.S. regulators .

But the aesthetic changes to how it looks internally haven't changed what the company dishes out to the end public.

With two greatly differing yet interoperating units that will propel Microsoft into the next few years, at a time when its bread-and-butter offerings are changing in the face of an ever-evolving industry — from declining PC sales, a monopolistic mobile industry, and an emerging cloud market — two CEOs may make more sense than one.

Because with such a sprawl of various business units all punting towards the same goal, separated by two often-contrasting values between the business and consumer (not to mention the in-between bring-your-own-device ("BYOD") customer), the challenge is finding a leader that can fulfil both roles.

Microsoft remains  a cluster bomb of billion-dollar businesses . From Azure to Xbox, Surface to Windows, Office and server software. Each unit could be split off and blown up into its own company. 

While "One Microsoft" may be  the running tagline , the company can be sliced, albeit unevenly, down the middle: devices and services, two separate yet intermingling divisions that entangle dozens if not hundreds of different variables in their own right. 

And that's going to be the company's biggest headache for its "One Microsoft" value: Who has the chops to take on both? 

It's not the first time that two CEOs been considered. Recode (formerly AllThingsD) editor Kara Swisher threw around the idea late last year when speculation was rife and many now discounted candidates were still in the running.

It would, in essence, take the SAP (although that will soon change ) or Workday approach. Both companies have two bosses sharing responsibility across different areas of each company.

In SAP's case, Jim Hagemann Snabe focused on products and solutions, while Bill McDermott took on sales and ecosystem activities. They both share marketing and other governance roles. For Workday, both Dave Duffield and Aneel Bhusri co-founded the company; but while Duffield sees Bhusri as the "heir to the throne," according to one interview, he also makes separate decisions in the company's running.

It's not a perfect picture, though. Then-named Research in Motion had two chief executives, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. And recent history showed how well that worked out.

Sometimes there isn't just one good candidate. In any case, Microsoft's forward-looking vision has to take into account what's important from a product and service perspective going forward.

What's important to Microsoft is the continued focus on its "devices and services" mantra. Vestberg may well fit the bill with more than ten years experience in the mobile industry, thanks to the Sony co-operative that propelled "Sony Ericsson" into the public light. 

His weakness, according to Reuters, is his lack of experience in consumer products. While his name is just a rumor at this point, with nothing confirmed by Microsoft or Ericsson, the software giant will want someone with greater all-round experience.

Or, at least someone with enough skills and business-sense to take on one half of the company. 

Taking the cream of the crop from either side and pairing them up in a power-sharing agreement — a cloud leader and a mobile leader — could be the only way Microsoft forges ahead against its competitors in an increasingly turbulent time for the technology industry.

It's a tale of two halves: the Surface, Xbox, Windows Phone, and the lesser-known Perceptive Pixel devices, and others — as well as the vast array of enterprise-based servers, cloud technologies, Office products and other business-related products and services.

Because Microsoft hasn't been for some time "just that Windows company."

Pairing Vestberg, or any other mobile industry-focused candidate, with a business services candidate may be fitting for Microsoft's fractured division nature. Likely matches could include enterprise guru like Microsoft's Satya Nadella, or even Skype's Tony Bates — both of which have been previously slated to take on the leadership role.

In spite of the products and services wedge that cuts not-so-neatly down the middle of Microsoft, the wider software, devices, and services ecosystem is pulling together — and it still revolves around Windows, even if it isn't the front-running business anymore.

But that doesn't require one person at the top controlling both things. It can, but it doesn't have to be. Having two chief executives who can talk to each other would make more logical sense than having one unique character controlling both — and badly.

Topics: Microsoft

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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