Posey's Tips & Tricks

Is Microsoft Becoming a 'Devices and Services' Company Again?

With his advocacy of everything from Bluetooth to quantum computers, CEO Satya Nadella doesn't seem as eager to abandon his predecessor's hardware focus as he once was.

Roughly five years ago, Steve Ballmer boldly proclaimed that going forward, Microsoft would be a "devices and services company."

After losing an insane amount of money on ill-fated Surface RT devices, however, Ballmer stepped down a short time later. Incoming CEO Satya Nadella was quick to dismiss the devices-and-services strategy as being old news that is irrelevant to Microsoft's direction going forward.

In my opinion, I think that Nadella had little choice but to be dismissive of Ballmer's strategy. It pains me to write that, because I had the opportunity to interact with Steve Ballmer on a number of different occasions, and always found him to be a very likable person. Even so, there is no question that Ballmer made some mistakes, and some of those mistakes were significant enough that more than one industry analyst wrote off Microsoft as being dead. If Nadella wanted to save Microsoft, he had little choice but to give the public the perception that he was doing a complete 180 from the direction that Microsoft had taken under Ballmer.

While Nadella definitely has his own way of doing things (e.g., Microsoft loves Linux), I just can't help but wonder if maybe he believed in Ballmer's devices-and-services approach, assuming that Ballmer had simply done a bad job of implementing that strategy.

What on Earth could possibly make me wonder about such a thing? Namely, all of the innovative hardware that Microsoft has been producing lately. Not everything has been successful (such as the Microsoft Band), but in recent years, Microsoft has created the Surface Book, the Surface Studio, the Surface Dial and HoloLens, just to name a few.

Microsoft has also been trying to improve upon long-standing industry standards, such as Bluetooth-pairing. Starting with Windows 10 Build 17093, Microsoft has introduced a new feature that it calls Streamlined Pairing. Normally, when you pair a Bluetooth device to a Windows device, you have to put the device into Pairing mode, and then go into Settings to tell Windows to look for the new device. With Streamlined Pairing, however, all you have to do is put the Bluetooth device into pairing mode. Windows will recognize the new device without you having to do anything, and will prompt you as to whether or not you want to pair the Bluetooth device to your Windows machine. In other words, Microsoft is trying to make Bluetooth-pairing a lot simpler.

Unfortunately, almost all Bluetooth hardware still has to be paired in the usual way. As of right now, there is only one device that supports streamlined pairing, and that's the Microsoft Surface Precision Mouse. However, Microsoft is working with a number of hardware manufacturers to integrate streamlined pairing capabilities into next-generation hardware.

And speaking of hardware manufacturers, Microsoft has also been working directly with hardware manufacturers in other ways. As you have probably heard, Windows 10 includes native mixed reality (which is similar to virtual reality) capabilities. Rather than make its own mixed reality headsets, Microsoft instead worked with hardware vendors such as Dell, Samsung and Acer to develop standardized mixed reality headsets for Windows. This stands in stark contrast to HoloLens, which Microsoft manufactures itself.

If there is still any question that Microsoft is interested in furthering hardware development, one needs only to look as far as the 2017 Ignite conference. During one of the Microsoft keynotes, Nadella revealed that Microsoft has been quietly at work developing a quantum computer. This wasn't a quick "oh, and by the way" kind of announcement. Microsoft brought out a prototype of the device and used a significant amount of time in the keynote for a panel discussion with those who were developing the device.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, there are lots of signs that Microsoft is returning to its roots, at least as far as its hardware development efforts go. Personally, I find this encouraging, and look forward to seeing what Microsoft comes out with next.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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