The selection of a CEO to take over Microsoft is not expected to come before February, according to multiple sources, due to a range of issues, including the packed schedule of the software giant’s chairman Bill Gates this month.

That includes his annual letter from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is a major communication from the philanthropic organization that comes out every January, this year on the 20th. That will be followed by his attendance at Davos, the annual global gathering in Switzerland where major public figures discuss a range of key policy issues. Gates looms large at the event, which he uses to focus attention on the various initiatives of the foundation.

Gates is a key player in the CEO search, despite the high profile of another director, John Thompson, who is heading the search process. “This is a Gates search, even though the board is very involved,” said one source with knowledge of the situation. “But nothing is going to happen without him, especially since he will be much more involved in the company going forward.”

In addition, Microsoft announces its second-quarter earnings on January 23, which also requires a lot of attention from its top execs, including outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer, who is also on its board. And, of course, the company and the tech world has been focused on CES, the yearly consumer electronics event taking place this week in Las Vegas, making any announcement unlikely.

Already, there has been a bit of a slowdown in the process due to the holidays — which a person close to the board called a “breather” to me — especially after Thompson released a statement in mid-December that basically said that.

“We’re moving ahead well, and I expect we’ll complete our work in the early part of 2014,” he wrote, in an attempt to tamp down the intense speculation around who would be the new leader of the company and also assuage the internal tension within the company’s ranks to name a CEO.

And while many thought that could mean by January, sources close to the situation said the process is more likely to extend at least into February and perhaps longer, although the hope is for sooner than later. When Ballmer announced he was leaving, he said the selection of a new CEO could take a year.

No one at Microsoft wants that. “There has to be clarity, because everyone is in limbo and swimming in place, waiting to see who gets the job,” said one high-ranking exec. “With everything moving so quickly in tech, we can hardly afford to take too much more time.”

One of the problems has been the swirling issues around the candidates. Earlier this week, after many non-denial denials, Ford CEO Alan Mulally finally made it explicit that he would stay at the car giant through 2014.

“I would like to end the Microsoft speculation because I have no other plans to do anything other than serve Ford,” Mulally said in an interview with AP. “You don’t have to worry about me leaving.”

Mulally’s decline as frontrunner was already clear in December, as was much reported (including by me), returning focus on other candidates. Internally, the leading one is enterprise chief Satya Nadella, who is a favorite among employees due to his geekier cred. Still, there are worries that Nadella does not have significant enough business and sales expertise.

The other internal candidates are strategy head Tony Bates and, a more distant third, Nokia’s Stephen Elop. Bates has more credibility in the business arena, for sure, although is new to the company, as is Elop.

Externally, there are a number of candidates, although none has risen to prominence publicly. In an update late last year, Gates had noted at its shareholders meeting that the new CEO had to be able to lead a complex and highly technical organization.

It’s a tall order. I had named Patrick Gelsinger, CEO of VMware, as a possible pick, for example. The dream CEO for many inside Microsoft is one of its former top execs, Paul Maritz, who was Gelsinger’s predecessor at VMware and now runs its Pivotal spinoff. He has talked with Gates, said sources, but has nixed himself for the job.

Another name that is mentioned by many both internally and externally is Thompson, who is former CEO of Symantec. “He could pull a Dick Cheney,” said one person, referring to the former Vice President, who led the VP search for former President George W. Bush and ended up taking the job, in speculation I hear all the time.

But let me be clear — this is the longest of long shots and perhaps more fodder from the rumor mill that will continue to churn until Microsoft makes its pick.

Other than that, in his letter, Thompson said that, “we identified over 100 possible candidates, talked with several dozen, and then focused our energy intensely on a group of about 20 individuals, all extremely impressive in their own right. As you would expect, as this group has narrowed, we’ve done deeper research and investigation, including with the full Board.”

Narrow perhaps, but not done — and so the search continues.



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