Stephen Elop's return to Microsoft as part of the deal to buy Nokia's mobile phone business has made him the new front-runner to take over Steve Ballmer's CEO role when he leaves.

But he won't be everybody's choice of appointment following his time at the Finnish phone giant.

Elop's move to Nokia always had a whiff of Microsoft scheming about it. Elop was always billed as a potential Ballmer successor, after leading the company's business division, and his move to Nokia certainly never had the ring of a successful exec turning his back on his former colleagues.

Indeed, the special relationship between Microsoft and Nokia has led to the company's being aligned in such a way that Elop's most important relationships remained firmly rooted in Redmond.

Elop now returns as a direct report to Ballmer, heading up the devices division that will now include Nokia phones as well as the likes of Surface and, of course, the Xbox division.

Ballmer - who's next?
Ballmer - who's next?

The speculation about who will replace Ballmer when he steps away from a company he has led in his own inimitable fashion has now been replaced with an overwhelming suggestion that Elop will now be the man.

Well-worn process

Microsoft and Ballmer, as you would expect, are still playing their cards close to their chest. In an interview with The Verge, the current CEO was predictably cautious.

"Our board is going through a process open to internal and external candidates. It's a process that they wanted well-known so they could consider everybody internal and external," he said.

"Stephen Elop happens to be going from external to internal but our board will consider everybody. They will do it in private - that's the right way for the board to conduct its business."

Elop was always likely to be on a very short list of people being considered for the role; his track-record at Microsoft, his experience at taking charge of a large company that needed a significant shift of focus and his relationship with Ballmer all pointed to him as a serious candidate.

But don't for a second doubt that there will be many dissenting voices should Elop take on the top job.

Elop, it seems, represents a safe choice for the Microsoft board - and many, myself included, believe that this is a company that simply cannot afford to spend the next few years in its comfort zone.

Nokia - some decent phones are getting traction
Nokia - some decent phones are getting traction

Windows Phone has become a significant third player in the mobile phone market, largely due to some increasingly decent Nokia phones that use the company's OS - but it needs desperately to compete harder with Android if it is to avoid fading into obscurity.

Xbox One's launch has been far from ideal for Microsoft, with the Sony PS4 managing to edge ahead by simply taking the safest route to market.

And, perhaps most critically, Windows 8 has been a damp squib - bringing the necessary touchscreen love, but not giving enough of the existing market a reason to upgrade, at a time when Apple and Google are offering alternatives to Microsoft's most famous product.

Rare chance

Ballmer has been far from a failure at Microsoft during his tenure, but the end of his time at the helm represents a rare chance for Microsoft to make some major changes necessary to align the company's ambition with the future.

Elop's time at Nokia - whether as a Trojan horse or not - has done little to suggest that he is a man that will make drastic changes. And the Brave New World of Microsoft could well look very similar to the crumbling empire that has come before.