Microsoft's $7.1 Billion Deal May Have Also Bought It a New CEO

Stephen Elop, almost three years to the day after leaving for Nokia, is back at Microsoft. Will he be, perhaps as planned, Ballmer's replacement?

Stephen Elop

Stephen Elop left Microsoft in September 2010 for the CEO position at Nokia. Three years later, with Microsoft's $7.1 billion acquisition of Nokia's Devices and Services units, he's headed back home.

Just weeks before the deal, Microsoft CEO Steven Ballmer announced plans to retire in the next 12 months.
"There is never a perfect time for this type of transition, but now is the right time," Ballmer said in an Aug. 23 statement.

But just as many people have speculated that Elop left Microsoft and joined Nokia with every intention of converting Nokia devices to Microsoft's mobile platform, many believe the idea that Elop delivered Nokia to Microsoft—a company he could someday run, as it has been speculated for years—isn't a novel one.

"I feel like this was in the works the whole time," Roger Kay, principal analyst with Endpoint Technologies, told eWEEK. "It always felt to me that he was a Trojan horse, going into the center of [Troy]."

Still, Kay said the move is a risky one.

"Microsoft is betting big money that both of these wobbling giants aren't going to collapse," he said. "But it's a reasonable bet and a prudent bet."

Jack Gold, principal analyst of J. Gold and Associates, agrees Elop is no small part of the deal.

"I think it's as much about getting Elop back as it is getting into the handset business, although having handsets under their own roof was not trivial," Gold said in a Sept. 3 research note.

"Microsoft gets Elop back on board as an executive, and that is a clear statement that Microsoft needs additional 'new thinkers' when it comes to management and when it comes to new product thinking," Gold added. "Elop did a good job at Nokia, given the cards he was dealt, and his presence may spur Microsoft to rethink some of the strategy. This puts Elop high on the list of potential successors to Ballmer."

The decision to sell to Microsoft has the Nokia board's buy-in, Gartner Research Vice President Carolina Milanesi pointed out to eWEEK, suggesting the larger picture. "But the setup makes it easier for him," she acknowledges.

Forrester analyst Ted Schadler also expects that an Elop promotion is likely.

"Here's what I think will happen," Schadler said in a Sept. 3 blog post. "Microsoft will elevate Stephen Elop's position, possibly to CEO, perhaps at the 11th hour of Ballmer's departure," he wrote after a first bullet point.

(His second bullet point has Microsoft achieving the role of "significant third player." While still behind Google and Apple, it will be a "very vital competitor and supplier," Schadler wrote.)

Microsoft's Ballmer says the public shouldn't read too much into what the deal means for Elop's future, the The Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 3, following an interview. "But he acknowledged," the report added, "his longtime associate has gone from being an external candidate to an internal candidate."

The report also added that in selecting Elop to lead the integration of the new business, Ballmer selected a "respected ally" and valued partner. Elop, Ballmer said, was one of the few people he called before publically announcing his planned retirement.

A Microsoft purchase of Nokia has been in discussion for some time. Most recently, in June, The Journal reported that the pair were close to a deal that ultimately fell apart over price.

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