The first time I visited Microsoft in the early 1980s, it was in its then-new red brick offices in Bellevue, Washington, packing less than 50 people. You could walk down the halls and see Bill Gates plugging away at his keyboard and Paul Allen coding in a small office. In fact, I was told that I was one of the first analysts to ever visit Microsoft, as it was just gaining ground with its MS-DOS operating system thanks to IBM’s decision to use it in its first PC.
Consequently, I got to watch Microsoft grow from the beginning. It quickly became a high priority for me as an analyst, as its actions greatly impacted the growth of the PC industry. The company even asked me to advise on several different projects over the years, from its early experiments in graphical interfaces to its first steps into mobile. However, I haven't worked on any Microsoft efforts since 2004, and now mostly watch the company from afar.
While plenty of today's pundits write about how Microsoft missed the boat on mobile, I was concerned about Microsoft's Windows-only focus as early as the late 1990s. By then, the market was already starting to expand well beyond PCs and moving towards a mobile future. And after the turn of the millennium, I felt then-CEO Steve Ballmer had become so Windows-centric he could no longer see the tech world expanding and splitting into different directions. As Microsoft rival Apple gained important ground in music players, smartphones and tablets, I felt Microsoft was way too Windows-focused, causing it to miss the opportunity to expand the company well beyond the Windows brand that, while still important, was keeping the company from innovating.
Apparently Microsoft’s board had similar issues with Ballmer, who early last year was succeeded by Satya Nadella. While Ballmer and I had a strong relationship and often swapped ideas over lunch, I've only met Nadella once, and then only briefly. But since he has taken over, I've seen a new Microsoft emerge.
Microsoft is now more inclusive, finally embracing the diversity driving the next wave of personal computing. The recently revealed Windows 10 is a great addition to the Windows world, fixing the sins of Window 8. And Microsoft is finally doing something I lobbied for in the early days of its mobile efforts: Making a consistent Windows interface that functions about the same no matter what kind of device it's running on.
If what Microsoft is doing with Windows 10 isn't a strong enough indication of how the company's culture is changing, this might be: When I visited Microsoft last fall, a software team leader pulled out his personal iPhone to show off Microsoft apps built for iOS, like the new Outlook app. For a Microsoft employee to show off an iOS app would've been unthinkable under Ballmer. But Nadella is extremely realistic about making Microsoft relevant to all platforms, mining for dollars well beyond the Windows brand. That's fantastic for Microsoft, as it's a strategy that's going to give them broad potential in the future.
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