[caption id="attachment_11859" align="aligncenter" width="618"] Microsoft headquarters: intrigue city.[/caption] When the longtime head of a major company leaves, sometimes the successor is immediately apparent: Steve Jobs let it be known for quite some time, for example, that Tim Cook would succeed him as CEO of Apple. At other companies, however, the process of choosing a new leader is much more drawn out, and filled with enough intrigue for a whole set of Shakespeare plays (albeit hopefully with less bloodshed). Microsoft seems to be falling into the latter camp: since CEO Steve Ballmer announced his resignation, rumors have swirled about his possible successor. At moments like this, the tech press tends to go into full Kremlinology mode, picking over tiny scraps of information in hopes of divining some sort of deeper truth. So let’s indulge that sort of speculation for a few brief minutes, and toss out a list of who might possibly succeed Ballmer at the head of massive-but-troubled Microsoft:

Likely Candidates

Tony Bates: A number of Websites, including ZDNet, have placed Tony Bates on the short list of possible candidates for CEO. It’s easy to see why: chief executive of Skype before Microsoft acquired it, and now the executive vice president responsible for Microsoft’s evangelism and business development, Bates seems capable (at least based on his resume) of handling both the consumer and enterprise sides of Microsoft’s business. Satya Nadella: President of Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise Group, Nadella is responsible for the company’s cloud and developer initiatives. He’s a frequent speaker at Microsoft’s public events and a favorite for the CEO job among the tech press. Microsoft’s focus on the cloud as its future could give him an inside track for the top job. Kevin Turner: Microsoft’s COO seems like a likely pick, except for the minor fact that employees reportedly dislike him—take a look at the comment boards on Websites where Microsoft employees hang out, such as Mini-Microsoft, and count how many (anonymous) posters shriek in pain when Turner’s name is floated as a possible Ballmer successor.

Somewhat Unlikely

Paul Maritz: Former head of VMware and current CEO of Pivotal, Maritz was once a high-ranking executive at Microsoft, where he participated in the development of Windows and Internet Explorer. He’s well-versed in enterprise technology and could provide any company with crystal-clear strategic vision, but his length of time away from the company (he left in 2000) may end up hurting him in comparison to current executives like Nadella or Bates. Steven Sinofsky: Former leader of Microsoft’s Windows division, and considered CEO fodder by many Microsoft watchers until he left the company in late 2012. Scuttlebutt suggested that Sinofsky’s inability to play well with Microsoft’s other divisions was the real reason for his departure, although all involved parties cast it as a mutual decision. He recently joined Andreessen Horowitz as a board partner, but there’s no reason (at least in theory) why he couldn’t come back—so long as he adopted a holistic approach to the business, and eased any lingering animosities among current Microsoft executives.

Yeah, Right

Léo Apotheker: Tanned, rested, and ready… to crash another major tech firm straight into a brick wall. Bill Gates: He's not going to pull a Steve Jobs and return to elevate the company he co-founded from its doldrums; he's too busy trying to save the Earth. Reed Hastings: His name’s floated out there as a possible dark-horse candidate, but—even if Microsoft’s search committee wanted him—it’s likely that Hastings is too invested in running Netflix to head up Microsoft. Marissa Mayer: Too bad Yahoo got her first. Sheryl Sandberg: Facebook COO and author of “Lean In,” Sandberg seems totally happy in her current role. But if she ever wanted a once-in-a-lifetime challenge, it’d be hard to top Microsoft, which is struggling to stay relevant in the consumer market while fending off a variety of very determined enterprise challengers. Eric Schmidt: Why not? Sure, Microsoft and Google are bitter enemies, and sure, serving as the search-engine giant’s chairman probably means Schmidt’s a little busy right now. But let’s spitball: Schmidt proved his executive chops by running Google for a decade, and he has some big ideas about the future of technology. Even if he’d never consider running Microsoft, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t run Microsoft.   Image: Microsoft