SEATTLE (Reuters) - Microsoft Corp. picked two well-respected technical minds to fill the void from founder Bill Gates' pending departure in two years, but it also identified a next tier of leaders charged with reinventing the software giant to compete against younger, agile rivals.

Grabbing headlines in Thursday's announcements were Ray Ozzie, 50, who assumes the company's top technical mantle as chief software architect, and Craig Mundie, 56, who takes over some of Gates' role as long-term visionary.

But Microsoft also tapped a next tier of technical talent in J Allard, Steven Sinofsky and Bob Muglia -- executives in their 30s and 40s -- to play a larger role in shaping the company's future business and technology strategy.

Analysts said all three have won the respect of Microsoft's rank-and-file programmers with deep technical knowledge and an understanding that technology improvements cannot come at the expense of delays to new products, a problem that has plagued the company's mainstay Windows division.

"They have really good technical minds and really good experiences about what kind of decisions you have to make in order to ship a product," said Rob Horwitz, an analyst at independent research firm Directions on Microsoft.

"Those are the guys with their feet on the ground and not as much pie in the sky."

An ability to ship new products in a timely manner seems all the more important in light of investor perceptions that Microsoft has been outmaneuvered by aggressive and more agile competitors like Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc.

"Microsoft is at a crucial inflection point," said Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox. "The technologists are important for the company's future.


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