Microsoft says it’s “pleased” with the progress it has made in trying to find a replacement for outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer, and expects to complete the hire early next year.

John Thompson, a member of Microsoft’s board of directors and the chair of a special committee that is responsible for finding Ballmer’s successor, said over 100 possible candidates were initially considered. The group was then whittled down to 20 individuals, which he said were all “extremely impressive in their own right.” It’s not clear how many candidates now remain.

“As you would expect, as this group has narrowed, we’ve done deeper research and investigation, including with the full Board,” he said. “We’re moving ahead well, and I expect we’ll complete our work in the early part of 2014.”

There has been plenty of speculation surrounding who could step-up and lead Microsoft next year. Ford CEO Alan Mulally, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, and former Skype president Tony Bates have all been among the bookies’ favorites.

This latest update isn’t particularly revealing, but does suggest that Microsoft is at least making some progress with the tricky hire. Early 2014 is a pretty ambiguous time frame, but hopefully it won’t be too long before we know Ballmer’s replacement.

Below is Thompson’s blog post in full:

On Aug. 23, we announced that Steve Ballmer would be retiring from Microsoft within 12 months, and the Board of Directors was launching a search for a replacement, looking both externally and internally. Since then, we’ve been focused on finding the best possible person to lead the company. As we approach the end of the calendar year, there has been natural interest in getting an update on where we are in the process. I’m writing to share this with you here.

As the chair of the Board’s search committee, I’m pleased with our progress. The Board has taken the thoughtful approach that our shareholders, customers, partners and employees expect and deserve. After defining our criteria, we initially cast a wide net across a number of different industries and skill sets. We identified over 100 possible candidates, talked with several dozen, and then focused our energy intensely on a group of about 20 individuals, all extremely impressive in their own right. As you would expect, as this group has narrowed, we’ve done deeper research and investigation, including with the full Board. We’re moving ahead well, and I expect we’ll complete our work in the early part of 2014.

At the same time, Microsoft has continued to drive hard. Our employees produced strong quarterly results, announced in October. They released new versions of Windows, our Surface products and many other offerings. And the launch of Xbox One was experienced around the world. All of us on the Board appreciate their continued focus and commitment.

At our shareholder meeting in November, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates provided an update on our search process. He noted that this is a complex role to fill, involving a complex business model and the ability to lead a highly technical organization and work with top technical talent.

Microsoft has had only two CEOs in its 38-year history. As a Board, we are determined and confident that the company’s third CEO will lead Microsoft to renewed and continued success. We’re looking forward to 2014 and the opportunities and decisions that lie ahead.

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