Last week, Microsoft pulled something of a fast one; after months of teetering on the edge of being written off by the wider tech world, Redmond has suddenly found its mojo once again.
So what does this mean for the future?
Analysts and the rest are all adamant regarding one thing, a single point that they regard as immutable fact: the future of computing will take many shapes. What this means is simple, especially as mid-range chipsets have mostly plateaued in terms of power and performance, hardware manufacturers have released a yearly avalanche of odd-form factor PCs. The likes of Dell and HP in particular, aware of the ground crumbling underneath their feet, have thrown more shapes almost any others (save for Lenovo), all in the hope that they will discover the “key” that will allow them to retread past successes, and own the future.
In short, the whole affair has been treated of something as a journey, something with start and end points. Computers, if we follow Moore's Law, will double in power as they halve in size with every passing generation. The logical end point of this observation is impossible to see, and yet manufacturers have mostly taken this route blindly. Their approach hasn't allowed for deviation, hence why the evolution of mobile was something of a big deal. It was years before the laptop became commonplace as a form factor among the general public, something that was in no small part due to the pushing of the desktop as the only 'serious' mode of computing.
And, while it may be unpopular to say, Apple was the company to give the whole computing market a massive kick up the backside with the launch of the first iPhone in 2007. Back then, phones were phones, computers were computers, the lines never really blurred, certainly not in the way they do now. Given that Microsoft's cash cows, Windows and Office, were dependent on one market, the Redmond giant remained very conservative in its approach, and did so for years. As the king of a traditionally very steady market, the firm grew complacent and didn't pay enough heed to the future.
That is why two weeks ago was more of a sea change than many appreciate. Finally, Microsoft is being bold and taking the initiative, and it is doing so in a very clever way, however one that has many risks.
Nadella has seen the future of computing, and he has seen an opportunity in its different dimensions. With the Surface Pro line, Redmond tried to blur the line between the tablet and the laptop. Every further attempt has been an effort to shape the market, and these have mostly failed, not through a lack of worth, but direction.
[pullquote align="full" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]"Microsoft has embraced a multi-faceted future in which it will be something of a swiss-army knife"[/pullquote]
Through releasing an operating system that can work on almost every device imaginable, and releasing a slew of devices to support this, Microsoft has embraced a multi-faceted future in which it will be something of a swiss-army knife.
Ultimately, this is a reflection of the differences between the old and 'new' Microsoft, and also of those between Redmond and the likes of Dell. Before, 'winning', as far as that was possible, was seen as the only desirable end goal. That is to say that, having experienced an overwhelming market dominance, through the PC market and through the proliferation of Windows and its services, Microsoft wished to recreate the 1990s in the 2010s.
In a time of such flux, desiring stability is understandable, but that same value also promotes rigidity. Through demanding that its products 'win', in markets that it didn't understand, such as mobile, Microsoft set goals that were impossible in a number of different senses, this in turn promoted confusion, especially among the public.
In a sense, it was a form of arrogance. Being the biggest and the best was the priority, even at the expense of its closest friends. Inviting collaborators into their projects, before muscling them out, or just trying to control them, Microsoft gave little reason to join, especially when the likes of Google were extending open arms to the same manufacturers. The greatest example of this can be seen in the launch of Windows Phone 7 and to a degree in the launch of Windows 8, where many big names were brought on-board, only to be driven off within months by unfair arrangements and greener pastures.
[pullquote align="full" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]"it is Satya Nadella that they will pin as the greatest catalyst for change"[/pullquote]
Then came Nadella. Years from now, when analysts look back at how one of the world's largest software companies managed to turn on a dime to face the future, it is Satya Nadella that they will pin as the greatest catalyst for change.
Gone was the overwhelming dependency on Windows, in favor of Office and Azure. Gone was the fractious internal structuring that made truly collaborative innovation so difficult. In came a focus on the future, where Microsoft would be everywhere, and used by everyone.
The vision was bold, but it has come at a cost. Tens of thousands of employees have lost their jobs under Nadella, especially those poor souls from the former Nokia Devices and Services division. Windows Phone, beloved by a dogged (if small) fanbase, has been rolled into Windows 10. In slimming down its operations to such a degree, a small portion of the character of Microsoft has disappeared, one that will be missed.
And yet, there is the Surface Book, a beautiful laptop hybrid. And the Surface Pro 4, another compelling slate. Also, Continuum, a gimmick that may yet be a game changer. These are easily the most compelling, and most coherent devices that Redmond has ever produced, solutions for the masses. This is the device range for everyone (budget notwithstanding), running the operating system for everything.
Although the future Microsoft may not wield as much power and influence as it may once have, through being everywhere it will gain a certain ubiquity that will grant it immunity to the inexorable forces of change sweeping through the tech world.
As Apple continues to build its iPhone empire into the clouds, slowly growing rotten from the inside, and as Google has something of an existential crisis on its hands, the time is indeed ripe for Microsoft to seize the moment, and that it has.
In short, after years of confusion, controversy and condemnation, the company that many love to hate finally seeks to be “cool” again (though insofar as Sharepoint has ever been 'cool' has Microsoft ever been cool). What this implies is important: listening and learning, rather than preaching with force. Everyone has a Windows machine, it's important that they love them as well as live with them.
As with any 'Blue Ocean' strategy however, by changing so much, Microsoft risks losing the core both of its business and its relevance. Moreover, maintaining momentum in such a situation is always difficult, the motivation must always come from the top. Yet, in a leaner form, with a new zeal for improvement and change, the future may yet rest in the hands of Microsoft.
What do you think the future holds for Microsoft? Let us know in the comments below.