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Ballmer's Exit Revives Arguments for a Microsoft Breakup

NEWS ANALYSIS: News of Steve Ballmer’s retirement has fired up talk about more than potential successors. There are renewed calls to break up Microsoft.

Now that Steve Ballmer has announced his retirement (and added $800 million to his bank account by doing so), the analysts have rushed to fill the vacuum created by sizing up potential candidates and offering opinions on how the company should rearrange itself.

The U.K.-based Guardian has gone to the point of offering a list of seven internal and external competitors along with a guess on their chances ranging from a chance from low to high.

Putting aside why you would put someone who is rated as a long shot—such as Vic Gundrota now at Google—on the list in the first place, it is clear the “Ballmer Replacement Watch” will be a central piece of tech entertainment until, as at the Vatican during a papal conclave, the white smoke appears. Of course, the naming of a successor will only touch off many rounds of "did they pick the right or wrong guy or gal?"

In tandem with the replacement watch is the speculation around what form should Microsoft assume now that both Bill and Steve are more spectators than action figures. Should the Redmond monolith once again flex its muscles, asserting once again conformity and compatibility with all things Windows by expanded and enforced corporate governance?

Or should the company let a thousand flowers blossom by relaxing its rigid Windows, and only Windows diktats and give freewheeling techies that opportunity to do great things regardless of the past and regardless of what folks are doing in other divisions?

I noticed over at PC Magazine its cranky geek columnist, John Dvorak, is firmly in the thousand flowers camp, writing, “It's obvious to me the company is preparing to divide itself into little pieces. The real reason the stock is going up could be that the company is worth more in pieces than it is worth as one behemoth. Anyone can see how easily you could split off the gaming folks, business division, retail stores and hardware division. Each entity would have agreements in place for long-term supply of software and services.”

All this served to remind me of previous calls to break up Microsoft. Of course, this was when the company was at its height of power and the business, government and tech worlds were consumed with fear the company was in a lead so commanding, it would never be challenged.

Times do change. In any case, I include here Spencer F. Katt’s take on the shape of the country after a Microsoft breakup. Back then it was all about giving smaller companies a chance to compete and now it is all about giving Microsoft a chance to compete with those once-smaller companies.

Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC Week) from 1996-2008, authored this blog for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.