With Satya Nadella in charge, can (and will) Microsoft be relevant again?

Satya Nadella Microsoft

Satya Nadella Microsoft

It’s widely accepted that Microsoft has lost its mojo. Sure, the company is more profitable than ever (and on that score former CEO Steve Ballmer excelled). But, there’ve been far too many missteps in the past two/three years and far too few successes. (In fact, critics would argue that the problems started more than five years ago).

Microsoft is nowhere in mobile. Xbox One might be the last mass-market console it ever ships (given that sales numbers are a fraction of previous generations at this point in their life cycles). Windows 8 has been a disaster (that also shows in the numbers). The Office franchise is creaking (despite, again, record financial results). Surface… yeah, well Surface.

So with Microsoft effectively relegated to the enterprise space (and the fringes of consumer technology), it’s no surprise that Microsoft isn’t among the “gang of four” driving growth and innovation, at least in the world according to Google chairman Eric Schmidt.

In the nineties, it was Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and Dell. Now, it’s Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook.

It’s fair to say new chief executive Satya Nadella hasn’t inherited a global technology giant firing on all cylinders. Nadella understands the magnitude of the challenge to make Microsoft relevant again.

In the launch of the Office suite for iPad last week, Nadella said plainly: “Simply put, our vision is to deliver the best cloud-connected experience on every device.”

Nadella gets it.

A vision so simple and so obvious that one has to wonder what’s taken Microsoft so long… Can you imagine Ballmer articulating such a simple, yet powerful vision?

For the best part of 25 years, Microsoft’s vision has been simple: “A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software”. And it achieved that. The Windows obsession was strong for most of the last two decades. Windows, Windows, Windows. Windows everywhere.

But the world has changed. Ballmer struggled to see that until it was too late (remember him laughing about the iPhone in 2007?). If Microsoft had managed to articulate a new vision five or six years ago, it wouldn’t be in the situation it is today. Windows 8 would not have shipped in its current (failed) guise. Microsoft wouldn’t be a forced buyer of Nokia (imagine if Windows Phone shipped in 2008). Office for iPhone and iPad would not have been ready and remained unlaunched for the past few years.

Nadella’s been making subtle (but important changes) in his first few months in charge. Windows Azure has been renamed Microsoft Azure (small change, but symbolic). In fact, in his most recent email to staff on March 31, the word Windows is not mentioned once in 800 words. You can bet Ballmer would not have managed to do that.

So, Nadella has the vision nailed down. Now, it’s about execution. The Build developer conference is going to be fascinating to watch (possibly for the first time in at least five years!).

Mobile first. Cloud first.

How quickly and successfully Microsoft pivots to this future is going to be the marker of how relevant it is in five years’ time.

It’s incredibly difficult to get 100000 employees (soon to be closer to 130 000 with Nokia) pointing in the same direction and singing from the same hymn sheet. But, what Microsoft has needed for most of the last decade is a leader.

My money is on Nadella. There’ll be mistakes (and some tough decisions to make, like what to do with Nokia). But he gets it. And I’d bet that Microsoft will be relevant again. And that’s not a bet I would’ve taken on Ballmer.



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