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Tech CEOs on the hot seat

There are some prominent executive fannies on some very hot seats right now. And calls for change at the top of high-tech giants are getting hard to ignore.

So … which high-tech CEO should go first? A table full of VARs discussed this topic at a recent conference and the very non-scientific consensus was that the two execs in the most trouble are Cisco Systems’ John Chambers and Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer. The next question was: “who goes first?”  The still-very-unscientific consensus? Ballmer.

Now a high-flying hedge fund manager has weighed in. This week, Dave Einhorn called very publicly for Ballmer;s ouster.

That, tweeted colleague Carl Brooks, is like a weasel telling the farmer how to raise chickens.

Ballmer has been battered publicly by Wall Street and privately by Microsoft partners who have seen margins erode and products delayed, and the departure of admired Ballmer underlings including Bob Muglia. The memory of the Vista disaster still looms large. But at least the partners realize that Ballmer is shepherding Microsoft through perhaps its toughest transition ever…from a world dominated by on-premises IT to this whole “cloud thing.”

Granted Microsoft was slow to react. But slowness is kind of Microsoft’s default. Remember it took the company more than a year after Netscape’s browser coup to “discover” the Internet. Does anyyone remember Netscape Communicator now? And that tardiness came during the reign of the sainted Bill Gates.

Now, despite the calls for Ballmer’s head, some of Microsoft’s harshest critics say the company’s actually doing a lot of good things. An executive with a long-time Microsoft competitor sheepishly admitted that the new Windows 7 phone is a contender and that Azure appears to be a capable Platform-as-a-Service. He did not want to be quoted by name.

Mike Blake, CIO of Hyatt Hotels, said he used to have issues with the company but sees redemption.

“Microsoft has made a huge turnaround. At one point in my career, I completely hated Microsoft and now they’re building some pretty good products.”

Accordingly, Hyatt has already moved 9,200 of its 100,000 users to Microsoft BPOS since late March.

What could help Ballmer’s tenure is growing realization that the cloud pioneers have their own set of problems. Witness the Google/CSC mess in Los Angeles. And the Amazon Web Services outage.

Blake, importantly, is all about “cloud” in that he really doesn’t care what hardware is running where, or even what application is running or where, as long as he gets the performance, SLAs and billing he needs.

As for Cisco? Well, pressure on Chambers forced him to shutter the popular Flip video camera business. While Chambers built a credible server business (IDC numbers show Cisco with 9.4% share of the blade server market after just two years ), naysayers warn that the erosion of its core networking business remains a concern. And, now there’s a lawsuit alleging that Cisco, to win business in China, helped the government there track down dissidents. The suit was brought by the Human Rights Law Foundation on behalf of the Falun Gong.

This is not the kind of press any struggling CEO needs.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Barbara Darrow, Senior News Director at

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