Apple (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook competes with a ghost -- the memory of Steve Jobs. Microsoft's (MSFT) next CEO must compete with a living legend: Chairman Bill Gates. Will the next Microsoft leader be up to that task? Hmmm...

Microsoft's board -- including Gates -- is searching for a new CEO to succeed Steve Ballmer. The VAR Guy has his eye on a few potential Microsoft CEO candidates. But here's the bigger question: Is there anybody who wants to run the software giant while co-founder Gates remains chairman? Hmmm...

For the most part, Gates has been far-removed from Microsoft's day-to-day operations in recent years. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has consumed most of his time. But in recent months, it seems like Gates has gradually re-emerged as a strong public voice for Microsoft. And the software giant's own website has put the billionaire back in the tech spotlight -- even before last week's surprise decision from Ballmer to step down within 12 months.

Living Legend

Here's the difficult reality: Wall Street wants a tech visionary back running Microsoft. Some pundits think Gates is the best person for the job. Gates likely isn't interested. But he'll work closely with Microsoft board member John Thompson to find Ballmer's successor. 

Then, once the successor is in place -- the big question will start: Just how much will he or she need to answer to Gates? As chairman, will Gates be hands-on or hands-off? For the most part, Gates publicly supported Ballmer over the past decade. But some of that support likely came from the trust Gates and Ballmer developed working with one another in the 1980s and 1990s.

For readers who are too young to remember Bill Gates running Microsoft, think of it this way: Imaging if Steve Jobs was still alive and now chairman of Apple. Next, imagine Apple replacing Tim Cook with a new CEO. Could that new CEO deal with Jobs' demanding ways and tech vision?

That scenario may potentially await Microsoft's next CEO...