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Redmond (WA) – Microsoft chief executive was caught with some surprising remarks last week, announcing that he would like to retire in nine or ten years from Microsoft. That would leave Ballmer, if everything goes to plan, ten years in charge at Microsoft without direct influence of Bill Gates who announced some time ago that he will focus his future on his philanthropic efforts. Ballmer also has a decade to raise a successor to take the helm at Microsoft.

Ballmer’s love for Microsoft apparently goes only so far and there is a time for everyone of us when enough is simply enough. Ballmer’s plans to retire in nine or ten years, when he will be 61 or 62 and “until my last kid goes away to college.†Of course, the executive is in a much better financial situation then most of us and is currently ranked as the 43rd richest person in the world with an estimated wealth of about $15 billion.

2008 could turn in the most challenging year for Ballmer since he joined Microsoft in 1980. Bill Gates, from which he took over the role as CEO of the company in January of 2000, will leave Microsoft this summer, testing how much his charisma was really worth for the company he co-founded and how much of the charisma can be replaced by Ballmer. The CEO is also struggling to catch up with Google and a Windows operating system that is widely criticized.

Of course, if Gates is leaving this summer and limiting his role to an advisor who occasionally checks in and Ballmer leaving in 2017 and 2018, that raises the question who could replace Ballmer? There would be two obvious answers, but also two that are rather unlikely. CTO Ray Ozzie has been mentioned as possible successor and certainly would deliver the necessary charisma, but he is about the same age as Ballmer and likely to retire in a similar time frame, if not earlier. Then there is president Jeff Raikes, who, however, announced previously that he will retire from Microsoft in September 2008 and become the next CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Younger executives are rare in Microsoft’s senior leadership team, but there are two that could be candidates to succeed Ballmer. The 46-year old Robbie Bach (joined Microsoft in 1988) heads up the entertainment division of the company and could be seen in an increasingly important role as Microsoft moves more and more into this direction. And there is the 37-year Eric Rudder, a rising star at the company who has been working closely with Bill Gates as senior vice president for technology and strategy at Microsoft since 2005.