Microsoft’s (Nasdaq: MSFT) board is focusing on Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally and internal executive Satya Nadella as part of a group of more likely candidates to become the next CEO of the world’s biggest software company, according to people familiar with the matter.

While internal candidate Tony Bates and former Nokia Oyj CEO Stephen Elop remain in the mix, they’re currently considered less likely to be offered the job, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private. Preferences remain fluid and other people are being considered and could emerge as front-runners, said one of the people, without identifying any.

The board is aiming for a quick replacement for longtime CEO Steve Ballmer, who said in August that he will retire within the next 12 months. The Redmond, Washington-based company has seen its software leadership decline amid a shrinking of the personal-computer market, which was its core business. Microsoft is shifting strategy to focus more on hardware and Internet- based services and away from its software roots as it competes with Apple Inc. and Google Inc.

Frank Shaw, a spokesman at Microsoft, declined to comment or to make any executives available yesterday. Susan Sheehan, a spokeswoman for Nokia, which is still Elop’s employer, declined to comment.

“There is no change from what we announced last November,” said Jay Cooney, a spokesman at Ford. “Alan remains completely focused on executing our One Ford plan. We do not engage in speculation.”

The board met on Nov. 18 about the CEO search, Microsoft chairman and co-founder Bill Gates said at a shareholder meeting last week. Gates said he and other directors have met with “a lot of CEO candidates.” He declined to give a timeline for the decision, adding that “it’s a complex role to fill.”

Ballmer was all smiles at the shareholder event, calling it a “fun meeting,” compared with the teary goodbye message he gave to employees at an internal companywide meeting in September.

The board is aiming to have a CEO decision this year, though an announcement could be pushed back until early next year, said one of the people with knowledge of the matter.

A document prepared by the board for the CEO search describes the ideal candidate as one who has an “extensive track record in managing complex, global organizations within a fast-paced and highly competitive market sector; track record of delivering top and bottom line results. Proven ability to lead a multi-billion dollar organization and large employee base,” people with knowledge of the document have said.