Microsoft's Path Is Leading to a Connected World
The company wants all your devices to work in harmony, with Windows at the heart.
Back in Microsoft's early days, Bill Gates and Paul Allen devised the mission statement that became the formula for their company's success: "A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software."
Fast-forward a few decades and the playing field has changed. For starters, the notion that we can get by with just one computer at home and one at the office is downright quaint in 2016. Then there's that word software, which brings up images of shrink-wrapped retail packages and CD jewel boxes. Today, most modern development is aimed at creating apps that are lightweight and easily available for modern mobile platforms.
And even traditional software is morphing into services, managed in the cloud and available from just about anywhere with Internet access. Microsoft Azure services are gradually replacing on-premises servers, and Office 365 subscriptions are eating into the market for perpetual Office licenses.
Put it all together, and I suggest it's time for Satya Nadella's Microsoft to adopt a new mission statement: "A connected world, filled with intelligent devices running Microsoft services and apps."
The company's latest financial results suggest that Microsoft is living up to that mission statement. The Intelligent Cloud segment, which combines traditional server products and cloud services like Microsoft Azure, is top dog in Redmond. In the first half of fiscal 2016, Microsoft's combined commercial cloud businesses grew 70 percent compared to the previous year, and that growth rate shows no signs of stopping.
To get to that point, Microsoft had to get rid of the mindset that Windows was its most important product. And, indeed, that's happening already. Aaron Levie, CEO of Box and a Silicon Valley veteran, told me recently that he thinks Microsoft has mastered the art of "openness." The result is a series of moves that would have been unthinkable even five years ago, with a steady stream of apps for iOS and Android, including Office 365 releases that have been receiving frequent upgrades. The company has also been buying startups focused on non-Microsoft platforms, with the most significant being Acompli, an e-mail app that was quickly rebranded as Outlook for iOS and Android.
The latest important move in this direction was the recently announced acquisition of Xamarin, a set of cross-platform tools that allow developers to share (not just reuse) code on apps for Windows, iOS and Android. The Xamarin story isn't about building flashy consumer games or apps to sell for 99 cents; rather, it's a route to building line-of-business apps that tie into enterprise databases (on-premises or in the cloud) and then deploying those apps to a fleet of business users who don't have to be tied down to a single platform. Your new enterprise search app can run on an iPhone, an iPad Pro, any current Android device, or a Windows Phone or tablet.
The glaring weakness in that narrative appears at the end of that sentence. Windows Phone has been, to put it kindly, a colossal disappointment. Last year Microsoft wrote off essentially its entire investment in Nokia, and the market share of the platform has plummeted to roughly 2 percent.
But in a world where Windows is no longer an anchor, that really doesn't matter. If you choose another platform, you'll be able to find a rich assortment of Microsoft apps for it. If your IT department wants to standardize on devices running Windows 10 Mobile, those will work, too. Who knows? Maybe some enterprising developers will start designing point-of-sale and kiosk apps that will work with them, as well.
In fact, that might be where the rumored Surface Phone fits in: as a secure, managed device designed specifically to connect to Windows domains and, perhaps, to function as a workstation when connected via Continuum to an external monitor, keyboard and mouse.
It's far too early to declare, "mission accomplished," of course. But in an increasingly connected world, Microsoft seems to be headed in the right direction.
Ed Bott is a Microsoft MVP and an award-winning tech journalist who has covered Microsoft for 25 years. He's written numerous books on Windows and Office, including the best-selling "Inside Out" series from Microsoft Press. Bott delivers outspoken advice on a wide range of technology topics at his ZDNet blog, "The Ed Bott Report."