John Thompson, a member of the board who has been leading the search – and who was key in suggesting to Ballmer that he should move on – says on the Official Microsoft blog that the company has filtered its list of candidates from 100 to 20 to a smaller, though unspecified, number.
"As this group has narrowed, we've done deeper research and investigation, including with the full board," Thompson writes. "We're moving ahead well, and I expect we'll complete our work in the early part of 2014."
The delay in the announcement could shorten the odds on Stephen Elop, the chief executive of Finnish handset maker Nokia from September 2010, and previously head of Microsoft's Office division, being picked as the candidate, on the basis that he has experience both inside and outside the company as it tries to shift to a "devices and services" business model.
But there are reckoned to be other internal candidates besides Elop, who has rejoined from Nokia – from which Microsoft is buying the handset business – in a deal expected to be complete early in 2014.
Ballmer, who has led the company from January 2000, announced in August that he would leave within the next 12 months. His departure was forced by the board, driven in turn by activist investors who felt that the company had made too little impact in the fast-growing mobile market, despite its success in the desktop and large "enterprise" business software markets.
Ballmer began the shift to a "devices and services" business model, along with a broad-ranging reorganisation of the company's business units into a flatter structure which resembles Apple's corporate structure.
Thompson noted: "This is a complex role to fill, involving a complex business model and the ability to lead a highly technical organisation and work with top technical talent." Microsoft has only had two chief executives in its 38 years: co-founder Bill Gates and Ballmer, who had been in the company almost from its beginning.
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image: © Nils Geylen