Get Your Popcorn Ready: Microsoft's Search For New CEO Is Under Way

John Thompson, Microsoft's lead independent director and head of the committee, told ZDNet Friday that Microsoft has been mulling over its CEO choice "for quite some time" and is "well down the path" toward making a decision. Microsoft's board has formed a special committee to find Ballmer's replacement and hired executive recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles to help out.

Microsoft is transforming itself into a devices and services company that is solid in the enterprise but also able to rock consumers' worlds with amazing products. But while Microsoft has tons of skilled executives, it's tough to see which of them possess the breadth of experience needed to pull off the biggest shift in the company's 38-year history.

[Related: Microsoft Opens Office 365 Licensing Program To Partners That Sell To Enterprises ]

That supports the idea that Microsoft will bring in an external executive to take over for Ballmer, a source familiar with the company's thinking told CRN. "The sense I get is that Microsoft wants a fresh point of view and would prefer to look outside," said the source, who asked not to be named.

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One senior executive close to Microsoft, who did not want to be identified, believes the odds are as high as 70 percent that Microsoft will hire an external candidate.

So, who's it going to be?

Some industry watchers feel Oracle co-President Mark Hurd would be a good fit. Hurd has also been mentioned as a possible candidate to lead Dell if activist investor Carl Icahn succeeds in his attempts to wrest control of the company from founder Michael Dell.

But in an interview with CNBC last month, Hurd said he would have "no interest" in the Dell CEO job. While Microsoft is a very different company than Dell, Hurd doesn't sound like an executive who's looking for greener pastures. "I'm staying here," he told CNBC. "I'm staying at Oracle."

Former Microsoft executives like Steven Sinofsky and Kevin Johnson are also in the discussion. Sinofsky, the former head of Windows who left suddenly last November, is teaching at Harvard and serving as a part-time board partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

In a Thursday blog post announcing the latter, Sinofsky said he'll "continue to pursue other business and product development opportunities that arise. Through a certain lens of interpretation, this could be seen as a coyly phrased interest in the Microsoft CEO job.

Johnson, who left Microsoft in 2008 to take the CEO role at Juniper, surprised investors by announcing his retirement last month.

Given that Microsoft's CEO search is well under way, it's possible Johnson stepped down in preparation for a return to Microsoft, where he was reportedly well regarded during his 16 years at the company.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg have also been bandied about on Twitter as possible candidates, though there's no indication that either would be interested in the job.

No matter who Microsoft ends up picking, the company needs to pick someone unexpected in order to really shake things up, Jeff Matthews, general partner at Ram Partners LP, Naples, Fla., hedge fund, told CRN.

"It has to be someone who sees something we are not thinking about," Matthews said in an interview. "They have to find someone who can identify Microsoft's core strength and build on it in a way that doesn't leave the legacy stuff behind."