“Suppose Microsoft disappeared.”
It’s quite a hypothetical, given the software giant’s piles of cash and 130,000 employees. Yet Satya Nadella lobbed it in one of his highest-profile appearances as Microsoft’s new CEO, an on-stage interview Tuesday evening at the Code Conference with veteran tech journalists Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher.
“What is that sensibility that gets lost?” Nadella asked. “What is it that’s not going to be expressed?”
Asking what the world would be like without Microsoft is Nadella’s way of forcing his colleagues to define what Microsoft stands for—and to erase the stench of failure from the company’s name.
Mossberg and Swisher pressed Nadella to explain why the company had missed the massive shift to mobile computing.
“We all walk into the future with our backs to it,” said Microsoft’s poet-CEO.
Instead of dwelling on Microsoft’s mistakes, Nadella said that it was the “hunt for … that inflection point that matters more,” and said we were entering a “post-post-PC era.”
In other words, Microsoft would do better trying to discover what comes after smartphones than trying to play catch-up in that market.
He suggested that tablet computing had untapped potential—an argument which dovetails nicely with the company’s recent launch of the Surface Pro 3.
What Microsoft was good at, Nadella said, was “building platforms, and building software for productivity.” Tellingly, he didn’t say “Windows,” and he didn’t say “Office”—the multibillion-dollar franchises that have defined Microsoft’s past two decades.
Tying Microsoft’s products together and forcing groups to work in lockstep was a thing of the past. The “One Microsoft” strategy is about having a coherent offering for consumers and developers, not tying all of its products together in ways that don’t make sense. That’s why Microsoft rolled out Office for Apple’s iPad before it had a touch-interface version ready for its own Surface tablet.
“That’s no longer going to be a tactic,” Nadella said.
Translating The Future
Nadella gave a concrete glimmer of his new vision for Microsoft with the unveiling of Skype Translator, a tool for real-time translation of voice conversations. A live English-to-German demonstration ran smoothly, though Steffi Czerny, the managing director of DLD Media, panned the quality of the translation.
Still, it was a showy act of technical prowess, combining the popular Skype chat tool with the years of research and development behind Microsoft Translator, and plenty of cloud-computing resources to make it all run.
And there was a bit of a hasty quality to it that itself spoke to Microsoft’s changing ways.
Asked whether Skype Translator, which Microsoft said would be out later this year, would be free or paid, Nadella punted. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll figure it out.”
Nadella’s Microsoft doesn’t have all the answers, nor does it pretend to. But it’s asking the right questions.
Photo by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite