MSN: Exactly who is in charge?

Call it the 'beleaguered Apple' syndrome. It seems every reporter on deadline slaps the Microsoft Network with adjectives such as 'troubled' and 'struggling.' In its latest incarnation, MSN deserves more respect, having grown to be one of the top three Web destinations. But it's not out of the woods yet. Despite last week's corporate reorganisation, Microsoft's key Web portal has a leadership vacuum that it needs to fill, and quickly

Call it the "beleaguered Apple" syndrome. It seems every reporter on deadline slaps the Microsoft Network with adjectives such as "troubled" and "struggling." In its latest incarnation, MSN deserves more respect, having grown to be one of the top three Web destinations. But it's not out of the woods yet. Despite last week's corporate reorganisation, Microsoft's key Web portal has a leadership vacuum that it needs to fill, and quickly.

President Steve Ballmer is temporarily in charge as the company searches for a successor to veteran Pete Higgins, who went on leave in December. Former exec and now part-timer Brad Silverberg recently disappointed many who hoped for his return by saying, "Thanks, but no thanks."

"Too bad he didn't come back. It would have been a good move," says Sabeer Bhatia, who just left Microsoft 15 months after it bought his creation Hotmail.

There will soon be more shoes to fill. Longtime MSN VP Laura Jennings will take a summer maternity leave, then move upstairs to Microsoft's decision-making committee. She'll report directly to Ballmer as VP of worldwide strategic planning.

Meanwhile, an executive tag team will run the new-media group, now labeled "Consumer and Commerce." Former Windows marketing chief Brad Chase will assume many of Jennings' MSN duties. Jon DeVaan, who ran the Office application business before switching jobs, will oversee the technical side. Both currently report to Ballmer. But current and former MSN staffers say the vacant spot at the top is a concern.

"It's not a good situation to have two new people figuring out strategy instead of one," says one former Microsoft executive. "They definitely need a Silverberg-caliber person up there."

For now, the core of new-media lieutenants includes Matt Kursh, who ran Sidewalk and will now be in charge of consumer services; ad sales chief Charlotte Guyman; John Ludwig, who'll oversee underlying technology and the ISP business; Steve Perlman of WebTV; Thomas Koll, who runs the sales team that cuts licensing deals with telco and cable companies; and e-commerce manager Satya Nadella.

Nadella's work will be particularly interesting, as Microsoft leverages the portal as a storefront where its software customers can showcase their e-commerce sites. Watch for more infrastructure deals, too. Broadband access could turn the cash-cow Office business into a Web-based service, which in turn makes telcos like Qwest new distribution partners for Microsoft.

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