17. Steve Ballmer, CEO, Microsoft – Most Powerful People in Wireless

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Steve Ballmer, CEO, MicrosoftWhat makes him powerful: Steve Ballmer has said that the next few months are among the most important in Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) corporate history. The company is in the midst of launching a completely redesigned desktop and tablet computing system (Windows 8) as well as a refreshed version of its Windows Phone operating system for smartphones.

Microsoft's Windows 8 system is the company's first major effort to staunch the rise of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad tablet, a device category that Apple has said will eventually eclipse the PC market. With Windows 8, Ballmer is hoping to toe the line between users who want a tablet and those who prefer a desktop computing experience--Windows 8 will offer both touchscreen and full computing environments.

But it's in smartphones that Microsoft faces an even bigger climb. The company's Windows Phone operating system commands just 2.7 percent of the global smartphone market, according to Gartner, a position that has remained relatively unchanged during the past year. That means Microsoft will need to generate significant interest in its new Windows Phone 8 operating system, which is getting pushed by the likes of Nokia (NYSE:NOK), HTC and Samsung. Standing in the way are heavyweights Apple (iPhone) and Google (Android).

In order to overcome those challenges, Microsoft's Ballmer likely will need to push his agenda on private and corporate buyers. The situation is important enough for Ballmer to make a rare appearance in Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 marketing.

Today, Microsoft's Windows strategy revolves largely around simplifying and unifying its offerings. For example, the company recently released an application that synchs content between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. Similar products that work across various devices, including Microsoft's Xbox, are either on the market or on their way to the market.

The big Windows Phone question, though, is exactly how far Microsoft is willing to go. For Windows 8, Microsoft took the rare step of building its own device, the Surface. The gadget will compete directly with companies like Samsung that license Windows from Microsoft.

Ballmer has left open the possibility that Microsoft could employ a similar tactic by building its own Windows Phone device. Such a device could put additional pressure on Windows Phone licensees like HTC and Nokia (both of which continue to struggle in the overall market).

What Ballmer ultimately decides to do in the smartphone industry could have significant repercussions--for both Microsoft's partners and rivals.+Mike

Special Report: Top 25 Most Powerful People in U.S. Wireless 2012