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talking to both internal and external candidates.
About 18 months to two years ago, Ballmer started thinking seriously about a succession plan, the internal source said.
The time since was not marked with glory for Ballmer, with a tepid launch of Windows 8, the disappointment of the Surface tablet, and a $731 million fine by European regulators for forgetting to offer a choice of browsers to Windows users.
Two to three months ago, Ballmer started thinking seriously about his retirement and concluded it was the "right time to start the process," the source said. That was shortly after ValueAct took a $2 billion stake in Microsoft.
July's gloomy earnings, which offered no immediate hope of quick improvement, may have sealed the decision. Ballmer said Friday he made the choice in the few days prior, and informed the board on Wednesday. Whether the board urged Ballmer to leave is not known.
The impending exit of Ballmer leaves a difficult and perhaps impossible choice to his successor - pushing a large and insular behemoth through a highly risky transformation to the mobile world, or clinging to an island of profitable but PC-centric businesses.
"I'm not sure there is someone who can do Steve's (Ballmer's) job 'better'. It's an incredibly difficult job, perhaps intractable," said Brad Silverberg, a former senior Windows executive and co-founder of Seattle venture capital firm Ignition Partners. "Perhaps the way the job is defined needs to change, and this is the harbinger of bigger changes to come."