Imagine you’re Satya Nadella.
You’ve just taken the helm of the world’s largest software provider, but the company faces threats from almost every direction. What’s your biggest problem? What must you do, above all else?
Your first problem is not R&D. Microsoft’s R&D is in comparatively good shape — nothing like the starving, demoralized organization Meg Whitman faced when she took the reins at Hewlett-Packard, and has been fighting to reinvigorate since. Microsoft spends $10 billion annually in R&D, more even than Google.
What about “the cloud”? Surely this is it: When you’re a legacy enterprise vendor, the cloud is always the source of — and solution to — every problem. The trouble with the cloud, at least in its PaaS/IaaS embodiment, is that it’s driving otherwise sane companies to throw enormous capital into a fast-commoditizing business. This cloud is a race to the price bottom that Amazon has already won.
But if Microsoft’s chief need isn’t bigger R&D, or more drastic innovation, or a broader cloud, then what is it?
That word doesn’t appear in Nadella’s introductory letter to the company, but it should. The largest threat facing Microsoft is its irrelevance to new generations of developers, particularly mobile developers. And the company’s first-order need is for a true, modern developer ecosystem.
The fact remains that it was the iPhone, much more than any cloud, that blew the Wintel world to smithereens. With their mobile devices and App Store, Apple has set the model for the modern developer ecosystem. Apple has paid out more than $10 billion to developers via the App Store — half of it within the last year alone.
Of course, the relationship has been more than mutually beneficial. Apple now boasts a huge, diverse ecosystem of developers, innovating at a pace that no R&D org can match, driving an ever-exploding array of new capabilities to the company’s flagship platform. Google was quick to catch on, encouraging its own rival ecosystem with an open source alternative, and by standing up Google Play.
But Microsoft …?
The irony is that behind initiatives like MSDN, Microsoft was one of the original creators of great developer ecosystems. It was the mutual embrace between Microsoft and devs that helped drive the company’s software onto so many machines, and then keep it there.
Unfortunately — predictably — that monopoly position turned Microsoft into a bully. The company began to view openness and playing well with others as traits for also-rans that couldn’t afford to do otherwise. This attitude was perfectly mirrored in Steve Ballmer, a domineering salesman who had grown up in the desktop world that Microsoft owned.
With the appointment of Nadella, the company seems finally to be acknowledging how dead and buried that old world is. This is the man who used a Mac — a Mac — onstage at Build. His aim? To show how Azure could be used to create iOS apps. (In the same appearance, he demonstrated how Google Chrome could be set as the default browser for websites built with Microsoft tools.)
It doesn’t hurt, either, that Nadella is an engineer, giving him the advantage of being “one of us.” Even if Ballmer had wanted to throw open the door to non-Microsoft talents, what independent developer would have trusted him?
For Nadella to turn Microsoft’s fortunes, he’ll have to do what would have been unthinkable under Ballmer: Make non-Microsoft technology stacks and languages into first-class citizens, coequal with every Microsoft offering. In this, it may prove easier to change the technologies than the perceptions. But it’s here that Satya Nadella gives Microsoft its best chance.