Who should be the next Microsoft CEO?

Speculation is running rampant as to who should take over Microsoft. On top of that, people are also wondering whether Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates should even remain with the company when a new CEO enters the picture. I'm going to outline the shortlist and pick the winner, whom I bet you've never considered.

Ford's Alan Mulally and former Microsoft executive turned Nokia CEO Stephen Elop are two commonly discussed candidates. Mulally would be a great choice, but a risky one. Elop seems less risky from a corporate culture perspective, but the fact that he failed to turn Nokia around significantly is hardly something to be proud of. If Mulally comes in the corporate culture will have to be wiped out, though that may be a good thing for Microsoft. But would the 68-year-old super-executive want to deal with a mess like Microsoft? It seems unlikely. This is especially true if Gates stays on the board to second-guess his every decision. It's simply unlikely he'd join the team no matter how many millions are thrown at him.

Well who else is there then? Personally, I'd like to see someone from the current tech scene, not someone who is a CEO in a completely different industry. Former AOL CEO Steve Case, for example, would be a good fit for Microsoft, but he appears happy as a clam just being Steve Case. I gave up on him ever returning to work.

So who would want to run a company like Microsoft? Jeff Raikes could be our man, as I've said before. A long-time protégé of Gates and Ballmer, he knows the culture and has less baggage than most of the favourites. He was stolen from Microsoft to run the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and recently retired. But is he really done for good? Raikes is 55 and perfectly positioned for the job. Unfortunately, he may have actually come to his senses and realised that nobody needs the aggravation of running a company like Microsoft during this transitional period. He'd end up getting blamed for any negative outcome.

So who else is on the shortlist? Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of “Lean In.” Appointing her would be a slap in the face to the many executives lingering at the top of the executive stairway who actually know something about selling software. So Sandberg is out unless the company wants a rebellion.

But who does that leave? You've heard of him, but never thought of him: John W. Thompson.

Thompson was formerly the CEO at Symantec after a long stint with IBM. He has a storied career of success. I met him once during the OS/2 era when he was at IBM and he seems like a solid and charismatic executive who could run Microsoft without ruining the company. He clearly understands the software business.

Here's why I think he'll get the job: As a board member of Microsoft, he is the head of the search committee for the CEO. Over the years, in company after company, he has tended to make sure everyone is compared with everyone else, subtly adding himself as a comparative metric. The board will find nobody else to compare. His background with both IBM and Symantec position him perfectly, especially when considering so many lightweights.

So there you have it. John Thompson will be the next CEO of Microsoft. Place your bets while you can.

For more on Microsoft’s future, see our article on Life after Steve Ballmer: How Microsoft can get back on track.