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Emails are flying out of Redmond with this speculation: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's botched $50 billion bid for Yahoo could mean the end of his career. While Microsoft's board reportedly gave the CEO considerable leeway in handling the deal, his dithering approach and his failure to sell the deal both to Yahoo's board and Microsoft's own executives don't reflect well on the sweaty screamer. The only problem: Microsoft has no obvious successor for Ballmer.

Kevin Johnson, president of Microsoft's Platform and Services Division, which includes Windows and MSN, is the most likely candidate. But like Ballmer, he has a sales background, and he, too, was involved in the failed Yahoo bid. Chief operating officer Kevin Turner is despised within the company, and despite previously being Wal-Mart's CIO, he's not seen as having the right kind of technology background. Ray Ozzie, a respected innovator, has yet to introduce any game-changing new products. Robbie Bach heads up the division that houses the Xbox, one of Microsoft's few hits outside Windows and Office — but he seems too disconnected from Microsoft's core businesses. The rest? A muddle of undistinguished Microsoft lifers and recently imported suits.