Redmond Review

Satya Nadella: So Far, So Good

Microsoft's newest CEO seems to understand the challenges Microsoft faces, and is positioning the company to re-assert its preeminent place in the industry.

On Feb. 4, Satya Nadella took the reins as Microsoft CEO. Four months later, it's become clear that Nadella is a pragmatist, unrestrained by arbitrary industry or company politics. The Microsoft that made decisions based on dogma is on the wane. The Redmond that viewed Windows and Office as sacred (and inseparable) cows is in retreat. The company that was convinced it knew what was best for its customers is changing into one that gives customers what they're asking for.

Under Nadella, Microsoft is starting to look like a company governed by, of all things, keen observation and common sense. Whether in its developer stack, operating systems, cloud or consumer devices, Microsoft's progressive changes, just in the three months since Nadella took over, are numerous and worthy of exploration.

While Nadella isn't responsible for all of these changes, he's started some and he's supported many others that were already in motion before he took the CEO spot. Perhaps most important, Nadella has created a corporate environment that's emancipated employees to think in ways that respond to the market, rather than insist that the market will somehow come around to compliance with Microsoft's strategy.

It's a Cross-Platform World, After All
This emancipation applies to developers in the Microsoft ecosystem, too. Microsoft's tighter partnership with Xamarin, announced at its April Build conference, enables .NET Framework developers to use Visual Studio and C# to develop native apps across platforms. Its support for Cordova-based mobile Web app development in Visual Studio, announced at Tech Ed, provides similar support for devs who want to go cross-platform without resorting to platform-specific UIs and app stores. Suddenly Microsoft developers don't need to swear allegiance to Windows or make a binary native vs. Web app commitment. Instead, Microsoft is accommodating developers' varying needs.

Yet, even as Microsoft is acknowledging and adjusting to the far superior market share of other platforms, it's making the Windows story better. Universal Apps allow developers to target Windows 8, Windows Phone and, at some point, Xbox One apps with a single codebase. And to get the installed base of Windows 8 and Windows Phone devices to better levels, Redmond announced that the operating systems will be available under royalty-free licenses for devices with screens less than 9 inches diagonal. It also announced a new, discounted Windows SKU for larger devices;  the only quid pro quo appears to be mandatory browser and search engine defaults of Internet Explorer and Bing, respectively. And even these are settings which users are nonetheless able to change.

Microsoft closed on its acquisition of Nokia's devices and services business, a unit which continues to offer the Android Open Source Project (AOSP)-based Nokia X. Those devices may run Android, but they also put Microsoft's modern UI design language front-and-center, as they do Microsoft's cloud services, like OneDrive and Skype.

Cloudy, With a Chance of Competitors
Speaking of the cloud, SAP's applications are now certified to run on Azure. Microsoft also announced a partnership with Salesforce which involves that company's CRM apps' integration with Office 365; Salesforce's increased adoption of SQL Server; and its phasing in of Azure for internal development and test work. On a related note, Azure now allows running of Windows client operating systems in dev and test VMs. And soon, the Azure Remote App service will let customers run cloud-based Windows applications, including Office, across a multitude of platforms and form factors.

Azure's release cycle frequency is improving by leaps and bounds, and not just on the Platform as a service (PaaS) side. Maybe that's why Gartner's latest Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) Magic Quadrant named Microsoft as one of only two companies in the Leader's Quadrant. The other, Amazon Web Services, is still well ahead, but everyone else is way behind. That's true in the report and, increasingly, in the market.

And what of those erstwhile sacred cows, Windows and Office? Perhaps Microsoft might say "our strategy has shifted." Yes, Office is still a hugely important franchise for Microsoft, but it's no longer exclusive to Windows. That's why Microsoft now offers Office for iPad and recently announced OneNote for Mac OS.

And just as Office's value is no longer bound exclusively to Windows, neither is it measured only in terms of revenue. Maybe that's why OneNote is now available in Windows desktop, Windows Store, Windows Phone, Mac OS, iPhone, iPad and Android phone versions, all of which are now free. OneNote Online, along with the rest of Office Online, is also free…and its constituent apps even show up in the Chrome Web Store.

Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff on the same analyst conference call with Satya Nadella? iOS and Android apps in Visual Studio with Microsoft's blessing? Office on the iPad and Chromebook? And the Windows OS, sometimes available free? Maybe it's crazy, but think of it this way: if you were Microsoft's CEO and wanted your company to be competitive, market-sensitive, and relevant again, could you think of doing anything else?

About the Author

Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!

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