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Steve Ballmer took over the role of Microsoft CEO from Bill Gates in 2000. In the 13 and a half years he’s held the spot, he’s presided over both successes and failures. But the landscape of the PC world is changing before our eyes, and Microsoft itself is transitioning from a software company into one that focuses on devices and services. It’s with that backdrop that the company announced this morning that Ballmer will step down as CEO within the next year.

ballmerThe company’s official release on the matter was predictably positive, stating that Ballmer wished to exit so that Microsoft could enter its new life with a long-term leader. Once heavily software focused, Microsoft has since placed more emphasis on building devices like the Surface line of tablets, and has also worked hard to establish itself in the cloud services world.

If Ballmer doesn’t see himself sticking around a great deal longer, perhaps allowing a new CEO to jump in isn’t such a bad idea. Post-transformation, the Microsoft that is left standing may not look like the one Ballmer currently leads.

But we’ve already seen some of this new focus in Microsoft’s recent product releases, and the reception hasn’t been great. Microsoft took a $900 million hit to discount its poorly selling Surface RT tablets, and its latest operating system, Windows 8, has received a great deal of criticism for changing too much too quickly. Successes have been hard to come by ever since Microsoft started down the devices and services road, and Ballmer himself has expressed disappointment with both the Surface tablets and Windows 8.

And I haven’t even mentioned the severely botched messaging for Microsoft’s next-generation game system, the Xbox One. After snubbing gamers at its unveiling, the company strung together a series of poorly explained features that, to gamers, felt more like restrictions. Microsoft has since retreated from some of the more unpopular policies, but one has to wonder if the damage was already done.

So while Microsoft’s release paints a positive picture about Ballmer’s eventual departure, I have a feeling that, in time, we’ll learn that he was softly nudged out the door. Microsoft has been fumbling the ball as of late, and while the company has scored a few touchdowns, it’s tough to win when your mistakes give other teams more opportunities. Ballmer is the man at the helm and, as such, is the person responsible for rallying the troops and leading the company through its rebirth.

The fact that he’ll be leaving in the middle of that rebirth means that he might not be the man for the job. We’ll find out who is within the next 12 months.


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