Not that long ago, Microsoft was a mess. A 1990s giant losing its way in a world of smartphones and cloud services, but still a hugely important legacy supplier to corporate IT chiefs.
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In 2003 on this blog, I wrote this:
“I really hope Microsoft ‘gets it’ soon. There is no pleasure to be taken from watching the world’s most successful software company getting old and out of touch, revelling in its own ‘dad dancing’ moves even as the dance floor empties in embarrassment.”
I later learned that the “dad dancing” phrase got widely circulated within Microsoft, and I took a bit of friendly stick for it from the company’s PR team.
The problems that Microsoft had in 2003 haven’t gone away. The PC market is still in decline, putting future revenue from the once-flagship Windows software in long-term doubt. Windows Phone has been a disaster, as has the purchase of Nokia’s handset business. Microsoft’s tablet sales haven’t been much better. Its software pricing and licensing models are still a nightmare – ask any IT leader.
But today, those problems matter a lot less, and that’s thanks to the enlightened approach brought in by CEO Satya Nadella.
It’s clear that he doesn’t see Windows as the future of the company. Windows 10 has been effectively given away for free – unprecedented for the old Microsoft – even if the software is imperfect and the roll-out has been a little sneaky and aggressive at times. But nobody complains when Apple wants everyone to move to the latest version of iOS.
Windows Phone will hang around for a while as long as there is some corporate demand for it, but it’s dead as a consumer product.
But when you hear Nadella talk now, he’s having a very different conversation to his predecessors. He’s talking cloud, open source, Hadoop, data science, APIs, machine learning, artificial intelligence. Azure is firmly established as the number two cloud platform after Amazon Web Services. Sure, Microsoft has been a bit sneaky – its sales tactics haven’t changed entirely – in the way it’s encouraged users to switch to cloud-based Office 365 instead of on-premise Office, and in pushing people to Azure instead of Windows Server. But that’s not such a bad thing.
Microsoft grew on the back of Windows being the default platform for the PC. Windows instead became the default platform for Microsoft, even after users no longer cared. Nadella has been smart enough to see that Microsoft’s future is as one of the leading cloud platforms – note: leading, not default or dominant – and that means more openness, more interoperability, more recognition of a heterogeneous ecosystem instead of a proprietary environment owned entirely by Microsoft where if you’re not on Windows, you can’t play.
For the many CIOs who, not long ago, were openly discussing plans to move off Microsoft entirely, there is now some reassurance that their once-trusted supplier can be trusted again. In little more than two years at the helm, Nadella has taught Microsoft some new moves, and they’re looking a lot better on the dance floor.