Anyone looking for clues Tuesday from Microsoft's annual shareholders meeting about who will next lead the technology firm came away disappointed.
Although co-founder and chairman Bill Gates spoke about the CEO search and even outlined a few of the criteria he and others on the board will use to select the next chief executive, Gates gave no hint about when that process will wrap up.
"We're looking at a number of candidates, and I'm not going to give a timeline today, but we're pleased with our progress, and feel we're going through the process that will get the best person for the job," Gates said during his few minutes at the podium yesterday.
In late August, current CEO Steve Ballmer abruptly announced he would retire in the next 12 months after the board of directors picked a successor.
Many had expected that the CEO search would be a focus of questions from shareholders, but that turned out not be the case. Instead, Gates pre-empted questions by talking about the process in general terms, then implicitly made sure everyone understood that that was all they would get.
"Together with the board, including Steve [Ballmer], we've been doing a lot of meetings with both internal and external candidates," Gates said. "And we're pleased with the progress. In fact, we met last night and talked a lot about where we are."
Gates, the largest individual shareholder of Microsoft stock, is one of four from the board on the CEO-search committee. The group is headed by John Thompson, a former executive with IBM and Symantec, and includes Chuck Noski, formerly of Bank of America, and Seagate CEO Steve Luczo. Ballmer is also involved in the search.
Last week, Bloomberg reported that the board would narrow the candidate list to three to five people at a meeting slated for Monday. Gates' mention of the meeting confirmed at least that much.
During his prepared remarks -- it was unusual for Gates to speak during a shareholders meeting -- Gates called the CEO's job a "complex role to fill" and touched on what the committee and board is looking for.
"[The person will need] a lot of different skills, experience and capabilities," said Gates. "It's a complex global business that the new CEO will have to lead, and they'll have to drive across fundamental transitions to create new growth and attract and manage top talent. The person has to have a lot of comfort in leading a highly technical organization, and have an ability to work with our top technical talent to seize the opportunities."
Some interpreted the last line as a ding against Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford Motor, who has frequently been mentioned as one of the remaining top candidates. Such a reading of the tea leaves, however, ignores the fact that Mulally has led highly technical organizations, particularly at Boeing, where he started as an engineer in 1969 and ended in 2006 as the CEO of the commercial aircraft side of the company.
Most outsiders expect that Microsoft will appoint a new CEO in the remaining weeks of 2013, or if not then, early in 2014.
Gates also praised Ballmer's 13-year reign as Microsoft's CEO and his friend's and former college dorm mate's 33 years with the company.
"We clearly share two other things, as well," Gates said near the end of his speech, at one point briefly choking up. "We've got a commitment to make sure that the next CEO is the right person, for the right time, for the company we both love. And we share a commitment that Microsoft will succeed as a company that makes the world a better place."
On Tuesday, Microsoft's stock closed down 1.2% for the day. Even with that decline, its share price was up 13.4% since Aug. 22, the day before Ballmer announced his retirement plans.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.