Who's on Microsoft's CEO Wishlist?

Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) is looking for a new CEO as current leader Steve Ballmer polishes his golden scepter to a high shine. Ballmer will retire before August 2014, and it's high time to find a replacement.

Reuters claims to have the inside track on a few hot names. The news bureau's anonymous sources say Microsoft's headhunters started out with more than 40 external candidates and plenty of insiders on their wish list but have narrowed it down to a handful of internal names and about five outsiders.

Let's take a closer look at the purported low-odds bets -- and a couple of potential names that Reuters just might be sitting on.

The seemingly safe bet: Stephen Elop
Stephen Elop always looked like a surefire candidate for Microsoft's top spot, and he is, indeed, on the Reuters shortlist. He spent two years at the helm of Microsoft's business division before jumping to the CEO chair at struggling mobile-phone designer Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) .

On the upside, Elop has worked at Microsoft before and should know the company like the back of his hand. He has also spent three years getting used to the struggles of running a never-ending turnaround effort at Nokia. That experience could come in handy in Redmond.

But Elop's reign at Nokia has not been successful. Microsoft got along just fine without his hand on the Office suite's rudder, and Microsoft shares have largely tracked the Dow Jones (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) index since he left. Meanwhile, Nokia kept losing market share to hungrier smartphone rivals, even with Elop in the driver's seat, and Nokia shares lost more than half of their value.

Moreover, he's becoming known for his expertise at sparking a buyout exit because the two companies that installed him as CEO ended up as acquisition targets. And Microsoft is on the heavy side for a buyout play. Throw in the shaky stint at Nokia, and Elop might not be the guy, after all.

MSFT Chart

MSFT data by YCharts

The knight on a white horse
Reuters names current Ford (NYSE: F  ) CEO Alan Mulally as a prime candidate, citing his turnaround experience and big-ticket leadership background.

Neither Ford nor Microsoft will confirm or deny this pick, of course. It's pure speculation at this point -- but Mulally's a strong candidate, anyhow. Take the chart above, stretch it back to a five-year window, and add Ford up top, and this is what you get:

MSFT Chart

MSFT data by YCharts

Mulally guided Ford from the brink of bankruptcy to a solid eight-bagging performance. His fiscal restraint and opportunistic business philosophy could be exactly what Microsoft needs right now -- even if he walks into the software industry totally blind.

Then again, maybe he prefers to run a car business that he already understands. Mulally would be a big win for Microsoft, but, perhaps, an unlikely one, too.

The dark horse
General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) is a well-known management farm. The house that Jack Welch built has churned out a ton of future CEOs in every conceivable industry, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Microsoft dropping by Fairfield, Conn., for a quick look.

Bill Ruh, General Electric

Bill Ruh, VP of General Electric's global software operations. Image source: GE.

But which GE executive would Microsoft be interested in, pray tell? Reuters didn't unveil any GE interviewees, and the company is hardly known for its traditional technology prowess (unless you're talking about heavy-duty hardware engineering, of course).

But then you forget about GE's push into data services. The company is a big proponent of "the Internet of things," building networked sensors into everything from locomotives and jet engines to power stations and medical equipment. And GE has a vice president in charge of that next-generation push.

What would you say if Microsoft passed over the unproven Elop and already settled winner Mulally to hire GE's big-data guru Bill Ruh? Keep in mind that Ruh is a longtime champion of progressive ideas like the semantic Web and enterprise application integration (way before they were cool). Ruh would start a radical focus shift in Redmond, and he'd represent a big bet on the next massive market explosion.

This is probably exactly why Microsoft won't go there. The current board seems perfectly happy with chasing the same old status quo, even as the markets crumble and shift around its ears. But if Bill Ruh is at least on their radar, maybe there's long-term hope for Microsoft, after all.

This is no time to rest on your laurels, guys. Go with Bill Ruh or go home.

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