No 'Cookie Monster' for Microsoft

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- After Tuesday's market close, Ford (F) CEO Alan Mulally announced that, despite the rumors, he would not be jumping ship to become the next Microsoft (MSFT) CEO.

Mulally would always have been an out-of-the-box choice for Microsoft. But there is a precedent for it: the "Cookie Monster."

That was the derisive nickname given Lou Gerstner when IBM (IBM) hired him from cookie-maker RJR Nabisco 20 years ago, in April 1993. He arrived as a true outsider at a very insider-centered company. Everyone stopped laughing when he stabilized the company, giving it a new mission in software and services. Eventually he became a business legend.

Right after incumbent Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced his retirement plans, one analyst even threw Gerstner's name into the hat. He's still just 71. Mulally is 68.

Whether Microsoft today needs the kind of radical rethink IBM had under Gerstner remains an open question. It now seems unlikely to get it.

The current names reportedly on the Microsoft shortlist are all inside-outsiders. They're at Microsoft now, but they have experience outside it as well. Stephen Elop ran Nokia (NOK). Tony Bates came from Cisco (CSCO) and once ran Skype (now owned by Microsoft). Kevin Turner worked at Wal-Mart (WMT). Satya Nadella worked at Sun (now Oracle (ORCL)).

Except for Turner, who is currently Microsoft's Chief Operating Officer, the other men are division heads. Nadella runs Microsoft's cloud operations. Bates comes from communications. Elop runs mobile.

A Web site called NextMicrosoftCEO has been running a poll on who ordinary people think should get the job. The leading candidate, by far, is co-founder Bill Gates.

More important than the who is the what. Ballmer has set out a clear strategy for Microsoft, based on using Windows as a unified operating system for cloud, desktops and gadgets. This had been the Linux open-source strategy against Microsoft. Even if a new CEO wanted to chart a different course, it would take time to turn Microsoft's large organization in that direction.

Maybe giving Turner the job for a time -- time enough to see if Ballmer's strategy has a prayer of working -- is the right move to make. At the same time, the company could look for both a new vision and a visionary.

Meanwhile, what of Mulally? He looks set to finish his career at Ford, where the list of problems is growing.

The company got through the great recession without a bailout, making it a firm investor favorite. But in the last year, GM shareholders have seen gains of 35% on their investment. Ford investors saw just 13%

Ford, in fact, has seemed to stall lately while Mulally has been under consideration in Redmond. It's much the way a sports team can lose games when its boss is being considered for a bigger job. Revenue isn't growing. Neither is operating income. While the company can still report success, especially in China, seven analysts rating the stock now call it a hold; nine call it a buy.

Based on this week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, moreover, it would seem that Ford needs more leaders with Microsoft experience, rather than Microsoft needing Ford types.

Car companies were all over this year's show. GM executives are talking about giving cars broadband Internet service, and Ford is talking up integration with smartphones. Google (GOOG), which has been working on self-driving cars, announced an "Open Automotive Alliance" built around its Android platform to counter a similar Apple (AAPL) initiative based on its iOS.

If, while talking to Microsoft, Mulally has learned some things he can apply to Ford's future, his dalliance with it may prove to have been worthwhile.

Just so long as he doesn't bring Detroit the "Blue Screen of Death."

At the time of publication, the author owned shares in GOOG and AAPL.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.


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