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The Day Microsoft Gave Up World Domination and Settled For Relevance

This is all marketing speak, of course. But when Satya Nadella says that what’s important for Microsoft, what Microsoft should do is be there for people across all platforms, what sticks in my mind is not that they’re not on all platforms, but that both of the two other people who’ve ever sat in his chair have been adamant that they would own all those platforms. It used to be that Mac support was a vestige of history and a mistake that would not be allowed again. Now, they’re prioritizing other platforms over their own, and supporting more other platforms than their own. (Which doesn’t mean that iPad Office is feature-complete or everything it should be at this point in time.)

Ballmer and Gates think losing the platform war, no longer being the largest and the no-one-ever-got-fired-for choice means the end of the Microsoft as we know it, and they may be right. But it’s the also the beginning of the only Microsoft that can stop the bleeding and thrive. The time to make a choice either way is long gone. Now it’s a matter of survival and you can’t yearn yourself to the future. Nadella, maybe free of having to frame it as his life’s work being diminished, chose acceptance. He’s moving on and it’s going to serve them well.


  1. The future to the extent that we’ve seen it is in the cloud and mobile. Nadella came from the cloud so he gets that part. By releasing Office for iPad he moves MS toward mobile.

    By James Thiele · 2014.03.30 23:15

  2. Since there will now be a few people coming by, let me pre-empt the argument I’ve already seen elsewhere: “This is not Nadella’s doing. They’ve had iOS and Android apps out before and they didn’t write all of this since he came to power one month ago. Therefore, nothing really changed and you are full of shit.”

    To that I say that this change is, except for one thing, entirely in their attitude. The one thing is that they may have gone along with the App Store in-app purchase “give up 30% to Apple” rule; that’s a decision that Ballmer could have nixed and Nadella could have approved, and it’s more likely than not that the Office apps have been kept in cold storage waiting for Tim Cook to allow them a reprieve.

    Besides that, Ballmer would have never gone on stage and said that it’s a world of many devices and we have to live in it. He would have never launched something first on a non-Windows platform. It was a matter of principle to Microsoft right up until Thursday that that was what happened. Now it did. It was their cardinal rule and they broke it, and they broke it by instating the cardinal rule “if our customers aren’t coming to our platforms, we have to be there for our customers”. Time will tell if this is only marketing; I hope not, but don’t rely on my hope.

    By Jesper · 2014.03.30 23:23

  3. It is the most realistic decision from Microsoft in a long time.

    By davesmall · 2014.03.31 03:34

  4. I will fully believe what you say is true the moment a Microsoft product on any platform allows you to save into Dropbox in addition to Microsoft’s SkyDrive.

    By Kendall · 2014.03.31 04:24

  5. Kendall: The battle for consumer cloud storage hasn’t been lost yet (for Microsoft), unlike the battle for a mobile platform and search.

    By Anonymous Coward · 2014.03.31 04:55

  6. Microsoft are dead. End of story.

    By Craig · 2014.03.31 05:34

  7. Kendall: The anonymous person in #5 has it right. Also, if they had, you could have said nearly the same thing about something else.

    It’s a shift in marketing and to a lesser extent in general intentions. As important as that may turn out to be, it won’t completely upend every value judgment they’ve ever done on every feature and product.

    By Jesper · 2014.03.31 07:33

  8. Microsoft charged Office and Windows each with the task of defending the other’s monopoly. The metaphor is of two fighters, back to back, fending of all who threaten to push them off the top of Mount Monopoly.

    With the mobile Office and Windows Mobile though, there is no twin monopoly. They aren’t sitting at the top of a mountain anymore, they’re down in the forest on a level playing field and worse, they’re being pursued by this grizzly named iOS. Now everyone knows, when two of you are being chased by a bear, you don’t need to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun the other guy.

    Finally, Microsoft has figured out that the bear is about to devour Windows Mobile and asking Mobile Office to stick around and try to defend WinMo will only turn Mobile Office into bear dessert.

    By Aardman · 2014.03.31 07:48

  9. I once heard the adage that a program should do one thing and do that well. A totally different task calls for a totally different program.

    Maybe it is so with companies too.

    Technology is so complicated no single player can do it all and be the best at all areas. Why not work with others and leverage each others’ strengths?

    To me, the rise of Nadella signifies a more focussed Microsoft. A company that participates where it can add tremendous value, and is in turn rewarded for this.

    Microsoft need not fear – it has strengths in many areas that really count. If you’re a .NET developer who uses C#, LINQ, Entity Framework, WCF, MVC, etc. – you know what I mean. Yes other players have pieces here and there – no one integrates them like Microsoft does. It’s a joy to write code in .NET.

    Even with such a strength, they still cannot tackle everything on their own. A different perspective sometimes brings better results. Maybe that’s why Xamarin can partner with Microsoft to bring .NET to iOS and Android. That’s good for everyone!

    I think a better approach is trying to develop awesome tools instead of trying to be the fat cat on the top. This keeps people doing cool and interesting things, and serves everyone (including themselves) the best in the long term.

    By Colin Ng · 2014.03.31 09:31

  10. Microsoft has finally discovered that the era of WinTel is over.

    We’re back to a multi-platform age in computing, like we once had back in the 1980’s. We’ve come full circle; free market to monopoly back to free market.

    By Me · 2014.03.31 11:01

  11. They day you gave up readibility and settled for negative text-spacing and 11px fonts.

    By QOOLOS · 2014.03.31 13:15

  12. Amen Me. Amen…

    By Knute · 2014.03.31 15:18

  13. As a user of MSFT product from the very beginning, but one who switched to Mac, it’s amazing to me how monopolistic microsoft truly is.

    It appears to me they spend far more time thinking about how to corrupt and negate any threats than they do working on making their own products usable.

    I hope this is an end to that madness. Stop killing off a few key features just to prevent mass adoption. If you want to have all the customers, do what Apple does and MAKE A BETTER PRODUCT.

    By Brian · 2014.03.31 16:17

  14. QOOLOS: Nice. Now that you’ve had your fun, got anything to contribute to the discussion?

    By Jesper · 2014.03.31 19:09

  15. Colin Ng: Those technologies are exactly my day job. Microsoft is not only relevant but doing better work than ever in lots of niches, but not all of them are obvious or customer-facing. I would do many other things before calling WCF a joy, though.

    By Jesper · 2014.03.31 19:20

  16. Microsoft Office for iPad is just like Apple iTunes (the software and store) for Windows: a trojan horse to lure users of a host platform into an entirely other platform/ecosystem. In iTunes’ case, Windows users were lured into having media libraries full of FairPlay DRM that can only be played on Apple-produced and -licensed software/devices; in Office iPad’s case, iOS users are being lured over to reliance on Microsoft’s cloud services.

    By Mark Gardner · 2014.03.31 19:33

  17. Windows users were lured into having media libraries full of FairPlay DRM that can only be played on Apple-produced and -licensed software/devices

    Your memory is failing you. Apple ditched that for music in 2009. Music from iTunes Store has been playable on just-about-anything ever since. And your library of pre-2009 DRM-encumbered music can be liberated without a huge amount of effort, although it’s not “one-button trivial”.

    By Peter · 2014.03.31 21:47

  18. Windows/Office still dominate the corporate desktop/laptop environment, but more corporations have found that tablets can meet many of their needs and have opted for the gold standard, iPads (you didn’t think they’d jump on the Surface bandwagon, did you?). The arrogance of Gates and Ballmer have kept MSFT from reaping the benefits of tablet computing. As was pointed out up-thread, they must have had the app for iOS in development for quite awhile. The new guy then had the chance to make this his first really big announcement.

    This Mac fangirl says Microsoft will be fine.

    By Diane · 2014.03.31 22:24

  19. @Peter: I agree, on music I should have said, “that could only be played on Apple”. The iTunes Store was opened to Windows users in 2003, so that’s up to six years where consumers needed Apple to play back their music content (and longer until/unless they got around to re-downloading unencumbered copies). Plenty of time for network effects to take hold and then cascade as other types of media became available through the iTunes store.

    By Mark Gardner · 2014.03.31 22:24

  20. “Windows users were lured into having media libraries full of FairPlay DRM that can only be played on Apple-produced and -licensed software/devices”

    This seems like a rather perverse reading of history. Apple didn’t want DRM for music, fought the labels to get rid of it, and did what they could after the fact to allow you to unlock your DRM’d music.

    They haven’t been able to avoid DRM for video, but my guess is that they’re not especially thrilled about it, they just see it as something they have to live with to work with the content providers.

    The story you tell is a lot more relevant to DRM on Windows which (unlike Apple DRM) IS locked to Windows. I still know of no way to play DRM’d WMA except on Windows…

    By Maynard Handley · 2014.04.01 03:46

  21. Of all the things Microsoft does, I didn’t think I’d hear the case for WMA DRM being the worst of them. Their ridiculous one-way ODF support alone is hijinks that effect more people.

    If Microsoft is playing for lock-in, it’s now into the formats and not primarily the platforms, although that will take a while to bloom since iPad Excel can’t even create conditional formatting yet.

    By Jesper · 2014.04.01 18:31

  22. Microsoft stock up to a 14-year high. Market cap at $343 billion. Google within sight for 2014, to pass Apple in 2016!

    By SmoledMan · 2014.04.02 07:59

  23. @SmoledMan A 14 year high huh? I’m sure the institutional investors that own 71% of the stock will ignore that entirely and focus on what matters, the dividend. That thing which old established companies do, and growth companies don’t need to do.

    MSFT are now passé, (French for out of date) and increasingly irrelevant, IMO. They’re not going out of business any time soon, and they still have a lock on the desktop & PC server market, but the joy, and the talent, (especially new hires) have been a long time gone.

    I would venture to suggest that what MSFT are now, and have been for most of that 14 years, is a utility. Something with limited scope for improvement that throws off stable income for years, doing one thing that is a necessity for most of their customers. Utilities however are usually happy being boring, and they’re not usually trying to play at being technology companies. Unless they’re stupid/corrupt like Enron.

    I think it’s the quest for relevance that they’re losing/have lost, and I don’t see this as anything more than a stop gap measure due to the failure of their own mobile offering.

    By praxis22 · 2014.04.02 09:57

  24. I wouldn’t count MSFT out just yet, they have a lot of talented developers and they been doing some great work recently.

    No matter what you think of the start screen in Win8/8.1 the speed improvements and settings syncing via OneDrive are impressive.

    Windows Phone 8 is beautiful and fast, just doesn’t have market share in the USA.

    Also look at the work they’re doing with Azure, its pretty impressive as well.

    Wouldn’t it be great if MSFT just became a really good software house again and gave us all some good products without the overarching need to have everything Windows related? All of this can be achieved by good management. We’ll see how Nadella does.

    And for the record, most people would say I am an Apple fanboy, just one who can see the sands shifting.

    By Shplendid · 2014.04.04 21:59

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