Microsoft is looking for a new CEO. As longtime head honcho Steve Ballmer prepares to step down, the teetering tech giant has narrowed its list of potential replacements to about five names.
On that list: Ford CEO Alan Mulally.
Let's put aside the question of whether Mulally would actually take the job. He's at least open to the idea -- otherwise, it's unlikely he'd have made it this far in the consideration process.
No, the real question is: if Mulally leaves Ford, is that a good thing?
And if it is a good thing: for whom?
From where we sit, it seems as if Microsoft and Mulally would be the big winners if Mulally were to defect.
Microsoft is facing serious challenges on the hardware front. Desktops are all but dead, and the end of the conventional laptop is drawing near. Microsoft has tried to make inroads in the tablet and smartphone markets, but so far, the company's products have been dismal failures. Even its partnership with (and now, purchase of) handset giant Nokia hasn't helped.
So far, Microsoft has been unable to shake off the stigma brought on by decades of bland, unexciting, beige-box products. (The Xbox being a notable exception.) If the company had been more proactive on mobile devices, maybe the story would be different, but by the time that Microsoft finally rolled out a smartphone, the much-cooler Apple and Google were dominating the market.
Microsoft's future in software is equally dicey. Windows mobile isn't bad, but it lacks the robust app environment offered by iOS and Android. And Windows 8? Let us never speak of it again. Besides, with everything heading to the Cloud, operating systems are becoming less important, losing ground to browsers that can work on work on multiple platforms.
Microsoft needs a leader to take it in a new direction. Is Mulally the right man?
He may not know software -- and judging by Ford's glitchy, much-loathed MyFord Touch system, he probably doesn't. But Mulally is a great big-picture guy. He's the only Detroit CEO who navigated the choppy waters of the Great Recession and lived to tell the tale. He oversaw the rollout of exciting new products like the Ford Fiesta. He narrowed the company's focus with the One Ford policy. (Adieu, Mercury!) And the company's healthy stock price reflects those achievements.
So, Mulally could streamline Microsoft's operations, which are currently all over the place. He could refine the company's strategy, giving it the same global perspective that led to the new Ford Fusion. Microsoft might end up a smaller company in Mulally's hands, but it could remain just as powerful -- and just as profitable.
Moving to Microsoft would also give Mulally more visibility. Sure, car wonks know who he is, but tech CEOs tend to get more camera time. (Consider: much of America knows Jony Ive, and he's "just" Apple's designer. How many Americans can name even one car designer?) If Mulally is looking for more minutes in the spotlight, Microsoft could provide it.
And how would Ford fare after Mulally's hypothetical departure? That's a matter for debate.
Obviously, everyone's replaceable -- from CEO to custodians and all folks in-between. But finding a successor to Mulally wouldn't be easy. Despite some shortcomings, Mulally was the right man for the right job at the right time.
Then again, 2013 is very different from 2008. Perhaps now's as good a time as any for Ford to begin its next chapter. Since Mulally has only committed to Ford through the end of 2014 anyway, let's hope that the company has already started looking.