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Steve Ballmer addresses shareholders at Microsoft’s 2012 annual meeting.

Microsoft’s annual shareholders meeting takes place Tuesday morning in Bellevue, Wash., and it’s almost an understatement to say that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will have plenty to talk about during his remarks at the meeting.

So much has happened in the past year — including Ballmer’s plan to step down as the company’s chief executive, Microsoft’s $7.2 billion deal to buy Nokia’s smartphone business, a massive companywide reorganization, and just last week the axing of Microsoft’s controversial stack rank program — that one of the biggest challenges facing the company right now is just the sheer volume of change.

Bill Gates
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has done his best to remain quiet at recent shareholders meetings.

Of course, there will still be plenty for shareholders to push for, including the perennial quest to return more of the company’s cash to shareholders. On that topic, Microsoft shareholders may have a new advocate in the form of ValueAct Capital, the activist investment firm that has won the option to place its president on the Microsoft board at the next internal meeting of the board.

It also wouldn’t be a surprise if investors ask about the notion of spinning off the Bing and Xbox businesses, given all of the coverage of this idea lately. Microsoft’s existing executive team has been going in the opposite direction, tightly integrating Bing into a variety of Microsoft products, and making Xbox one of the centerpiece platforms for the company’s services.

Barring a major surprise, Microsoft’s next chief executive isn’t expected to be named at the meeting, but it will be worth listening closely for any clues about where the company is headed on that front. There will no doubt be questions from shareholders about the status of the search, and what Microsoft is looking for in its next chief executive.

Given the audience, this will be nothing like the emotional farewell from Ballmer at Microsoft’s “internal” annual meeting for employees. Microsoft shareholders meetings are typically pretty straightforward, and even with all the change taking place at the company, executives will be striving to keep it that way.

But there is another interesting question: Will Bill Gates say anything? The Microsoft chairman has been noticeably quiet at these meetings in recent years, but especially given Ballmer’s impending departure, this would be an opportune time for Gates to offer his thoughts on the future of the company, as reassurance for shareholders as much as anything else.

There are no major shareholder resolutions up for voting apart from the (typically routine) re-election of nine board members and an advisory vote on executive compensation. See Microsoft’s proxy statement for more details about the meeting.

Check back Tuesday morning for coverage on GeekWire, or access the live stream directly from Microsoft starting at 8 a.m. Pacific.

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