Mollenkopf is on a list of several choices under serious consideration as the board works to decide on a CEO as early as this year, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the process is confidential. That list also includes Microsoft executive Satya Nadella and external candidates, said one of the people. While Ford CEO Alan Mulally remains in the mix, his candidacy has faded amid concerns about his lack of technology experience, said three of the people.
Mollenkopf, 44, is the second in command at the world's largest maker of chips for mobile phones. He heads a division that has built products that are at the heart of many of the world's leading smartphones, an area where Microsoft is weak.
The world's largest software maker is going through its biggest transition in decades, seeking a new leader while it adopts a new corporate structure focused on devices and services. Microsoft is buying Nokia Oyj's handset unit, its largest acquisition by number of employees, as it adapts to a technology landscape where consumers and businesses favor mobile devices and Web-delivered software.
Ballmer said in August that he planned to retire within a year. Last month, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said at the company's shareholder meeting that he and other directors have met with "a lot of CEO candidates" and that "it's a complex role to fill."
Frank Shaw, a spokesman for Redmond-based Microsoft, declined to comment or make executives available for comment.
Emily Kilpatrick, a spokeswoman for San Diego-based Qualcomm, declined to comment.
"Alan remains completely focused on executing the One Ford plan," said Jay Cooney, a spokesman for Ford. "Nothing has changed from what we announced 13 months ago. We don't comment on speculation." Ford said in November 2012 that Mulally would remain CEO through at least 2014.
Qualcomm's leadership in cellular baseband chips has given it a dominant position in so-called fourth generation devices and the company has averaged a 31 percent annual sales gain in its last three fiscal years.
Mollenkopf joined Qualcomm in 1994 as an engineer. He rose through the ranks to become head of the chip business, QCT, in 2008. While leading the group, Mollenkopf bought chipmaker Atheros for $3.1 billion in 2011, which is Qualcomm's largest acquisition to date. His boss, CEO Paul Jacobs, is the son of one of Qualcomm's founders.
Mollenkopf's compensation last year totaled $14.2 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Ballmer cited Qualcomm, along with Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co., as one of the companies that had taken advantage of the shift to mobile computing in the form of tablets and smartphones in his presentation at the company's most recent analyst day.
Last month, Ford's Mulally was one of the more likely candidates for Microsoft's top job, along with Nadella and outsiders, people familiar with the search have said. While that has shifted in the last two weeks, there are still scenarios in which the board could opt for Mulally, including one in which he takes the job for several years and helps ready an internal candidate, said one of the people with knowledge of the search.
The AllThingsD blog earlier reported that Mulally's chances have faded in the last few weeks.
Last week, Ford Director Edsel Ford II said Mulally will stay at the automaker through 2014. Mulally, 68, said in a Bloomberg interview that he preferred to talk about Ford's sporty new Mustang, rather than Microsoft or his commitment to stay at the automaker through next year. "There is no change to the plan," he said. He didn't address the timing when asked about Edsel Ford's comments.
Nadella said this week that he will stay at Microsoft regardless of who gets the CEO job.