Redmond Review

At Build, Microsoft's New Execs Take the Lead

Satya Nadella, Scott Guthrie usher in a new era of openness and sharper vision.

The tech industry today is vastly different from the one Microsoft entered in the 1970s and the one it dominated in the 1990s. This year's Build conference in San Francisco felt like the first Microsoft conference at which the company not only acknowledged these fundamental industry changes, but truly embraced them.

The banner announcements at Build were around Windows Phone 8.1 and its addition of the "Cortana" personal assistant, as well as some much needed usability enhancements for mouse users in the Windows 8.1 update. There were also numerous additions to Microsoft Azure, including a very sophisticated and attractive management portal. But banner headlines aside, the more minor announcements seemed much more important, strategically.

To begin with, Microsoft demonstrated a new application development architecture, called Universal Windows Apps (UWAs), which are created within a single Visual Studio project and run on both Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1. The Redmond software giant also announced the open sourcing of numerous previously closed-source components of the .NET Framework, along with creation of the .NET Foundation to administer these projects. In fact, Anders Hejlsberg, the father of C# and .NET, announced the end-user preview of Microsoft's "Roslyn" compiler-as-a-service project, and literally published its source code to the CodePlex open source platform onstage at Build.

Microsoft also revealed that licensing fees for Windows Phone would be zero, as would the fees for Windows itself on devices with screens measuring 9 inches or less diagonally. If that weren't enough, there were also revelations around goodies still in the works: a Windows Store version of Office, the return of the Start Menu to the Windows desktop, the ability to run Windows Store apps in non-full-screen windows and support for running UWAs on Xbox One.

The elimination of license fees on smaller devices will improve the OEM economics for building Windows devices. Open sourcing bigger chunks of the .NET Framework and inviting community involvement in the resulting projects could drive greater interest from younger developers, for whom open source is a key indicator of platform vitality. Bringing back the Start Menu, and integrating the desktop and modern app environments will help Windows veterans transition more smoothly to the new full-screen interface.

Perhaps most important at Build was that Microsoft saw fit to share Windows roadmap information with the audience, something that hasn't happened for a long time. The company's execs didn't just announce a new update for Windows; they also gave us a sense of what to expect in the update that will follow it. We learned that Windows Phone, Windows and Xbox would indeed converge as app dev platforms, and Office would run in the converged environment. Microsoft even assured developers still using Windows Phone's Silverlight app model that they would have access to new features on the platform.

The sharing of roadmap information, a warm embrace of open source and the utterance of the "S word" (i.e., Silverlight) are a marked departure from prior Build events, especially the first Build event in 2011. Why the change? Here's a hint: Build 2014 was the first major public Microsoft event featuring Satya Nadella as CEO and Scott Guthrie as his successor as head of Microsoft's Enterprise and Cloud division.

No Rat Pack
It would be naïve to think that the recent rise of Nadella and Guthrie was the sole cause of the new initiatives announced at Build, but it's no mere coincidence either. Guthrie was instrumental in the previous open sourcing of certain ASP.NET components, and in integrating the open source jQuery library in ASP.NET. Nadella -- Guthrie's boss then and now -- was supportive of these decisions. The moves announced at Build were teed up by these two gentlemen (and others), perhaps with some hope that they might one day have greater power to implement them.

Nadella, Guthrie and Hejlsberg are Microsoft veterans who have demonstrated for years their loyalty to the Microsoft platform, as well as their very progressive ideas in how to bring it forward. Even if the initiatives announced at Build have been incubating for quite some time, it would seem that in a post-Sinofsky, post-Ballmer Microsoft, we can expect such forward-thinking strategies to take the lead in Redmond.

These changes aren't casual or reckless; they're prudent, significant, and very pro-developer. They're the right moves to reinvigorate and extend Microsoft's relevance and influence. Microsoft has no guarantee of success, however. It could continue to have anemic market share in the mobile sphere and could see its existing strong businesses shrink. But Microsoft's new executive leadership seems intent on a thoughtful, courageous strategy that works to address the company's weaknesses while simultaneously playing to its strengths. And there's just no downside to that.

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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