A Sign Of Transformation?

Recently, Microsoft announced that is has joined the Linux foundation, that SQL Server is now ready for testing on Linux and a preview for Visual Studio on Mac is available. This is a transformation that cannot be underestimated. They reinforce the direction that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella started a couple of years ago. And they are the right things for the company to do.

Microsoft Is A Windows Company?

Under Steve Ballmer, Microsoft became a one-note banjo playing the “We’re A Windows Company” tune. There was no vision. There  was no strategic plan. Just “do everything we can to expand Windows in the marketplace”. While the financials for the company remained solid during that time, Microsoft lost ground in some areas, and failed to play a meaningful role in some new sectors.

Windows Mobile had some respectable marketshare way back. But by the time it’s replacement, Windows Phone, had arrived, the operating system had dwindled into insignificance. Windows lost ground to the Macintosh and mobile devices, hurt as PC sales dropped. Microsoft basically missed the transition to Web-based technologies, was late to the game of cloud services (but is making up ground in that department), and had zero presence in the heart of the mobile world, including phones and tablets.

All of this was primarily due to the company’s singular focus on “Windows and nothing else”. This was a legacy of Steve Ballmer, perhaps one of the best people at building and running a large business, but who was sorely lacking in true vision and leadership. Bill’s mantra of “a PC on every desk” was misinterpreted to mean specifically “Windows everywhere”, and ignored the real goal of providing the tools and technologies people needed to get things done.

A Sea Change

When Ballmer stepped down, Satya Nadella was named as his replacement. Nadella started with reorganizing the company, focusing on roles and not necessarily technologies. Then Office for iOS and Android appeared, which was a big step away from “We’re Windows Only” (yes, they have Office on the Mac, but that’s a legacy that goes back to the 1980’s). Of course, the work to port them to iOS and Android would have started long before Nadella took the job, but the odds of them being released under Ballmer’s watch was pretty much zero.

Microsoft took more steps: making a version of Windows available on developer machines like Raspberry Pi. Making it easier for people to participate in pre-release evaluations through their various Insider programs. Ensuring that Azure has services that are useful to iOS and Android devices. Making the core of Visual Studio open source. Every step was about making Microsoft a company focused on “helping people do things, and not “selling Windows”. It was about making their customers productive, not making them Windows users.

For enterprise users, their actions in and around Linux also spoke of changes in how the company will work. Microsoft has been active in the Linux world for a while, focusing largely on better support for their hypervisor. But they announced that SQL Server was going to be available on Linux back in the spring. Now the first versions of the database server are available for testing. While Windows Server is still pretty popular for inside the datacentres for small and medium businesses, Linux can’t be ignored. Don’t be surprised if other Microsoft enterprise technologies like Exchange and SharePoint become available on Linux as well.

A Hope For The Future?

The odds were that Microsoft in some form was going to be around for a long time. It isn’t like the PC is going to disappear anytime soon, and not likely in my lifetime. The mainframe is still a staple of the computing universe, a machine that traces its roots back to the 1950’s. But what that Microsoft looked like was a big question. Without the changes we’ve seen, Microsoft could have carried on following it’s Ballmer-created trajectory. Eventually, revenue and profits would have started to crumble as the company relied more and more on Windows and Office licences, but saw diminished revenue from their other products. I would have expected a bit of thrashing about until they decided that selling or spinning off the XBox division was a quick way to make some cash. After that money was gone, and after several rounds of layoffs, we’d have seen a vestigial Microsoft trying to keep Windows relevant as the technology changed around them. At some point, they may have even been bought by someone (possibly IBM or HP), since there was still a bit of a business as enterprises and consumers still relied on some number of PC’s.

Instead, Microsoft is starting to move toward a position where it can remain relevant as the technologies around us changes. If it turns out that we really are looking at a future where our “PC” is really our smartphone, and the current PC is relegated to professional content creators, some developers and people crunching lots of data, Microsoft now has some kind of footprint outside of the PC. If the enterprise market decides to move away from Windows Server and more towards Linux (for more than web services), again, Microsoft is starting to be positioned to continue to sell their other products there.

By expanding their reach into iOS and Android for the end-user, macOS and Linux for developers, and Linux for the server room, Microsoft can continue to stay relevant. They can have a voice in the conversation. It means that people will pay attention to what they do. The days of Microsoft more-or-less controlling the PC industry are long gone. They can no longer forestall a competitor by pre-announcing product months or years in advance.

Microsoft has also moved “up the food chain”, as they have acquired services like Skype and LinkedIn. It isn’t just about plumbing, it’s about having the data and managing it. Who knows, they may even decide to buy Twitter, moving them deeper into “managing data and information”, and not just providing the pipes to move it and buckets to store it. Whether that has merit is a topic for further evaluation.

While we might still question their presence in hardware, these moves on the software and services side lead me to believe we’ll see a relevant and influential Microsoft for the next while. Again, they won’t be able to control the direction, but they’ll continue to be an active and meaningful participant.