There was a lot of buzz about the latest re-org at Microsoft last week. The short version of the re-org: Microsoft is pivoting away from Windows-at-the-center-of-the-universe and more towards a vision of Microsoft as an integral compute fabric that exists everywhere and is visible nowhere – intelligent cloud, intelligent edge. Windows isn’t going anywhere – it’s still a bright star but now it’s going to be just one of many stars in the sky for Microsoft. There was a lot of external buzz, but my contacts at Microsoft expressed calm and confidence, even excitement. From what I’ve seen and experienced, CEO Satya Nadella has earned a deep level of trust and respect from my contacts. I talk to Microsoft peeps from Redmond to the field, so I get a decent sampling of sentiment.
If you step back and think about it – the move makes sense as just another step in the evolution of computing in general, of which Microsoft has always been a major player. First, Bill Gates democratized computing in the era of the personal PC. Steve Ballmer later went “all-in” on cloud computing when cloud was just an exciting big question mark. I was there when he shouted it from that stage in DC years ago. I thought he was crazy at the time, but his all-in cloud gambit may prove to be almost as visionary as Gates. On his watch, Microsoft transformed into a devices-and-services company. Now, Mr. Nadella is transforming Microsoft yet again, but this transformation is more nuanced. Ballmer was both old school (Microsoft’s platform or bust), and new school (cloud computing). Ballmer’s aggressive approach was right for the time, and to bet the farm like Microsoft did required an extreme approach. Ballmer delivered – devices and cloud-connected services.
When Mr. Nadella started heavily emphasizing AI, data economics, machine learning – I thought he was a bit too far ahead of the market. But I was wrong – I’m seeing it happen right now. I was in Redmond a couple weeks ago getting a peek at Microsoft’s latest and greatest in these areas, and I sat through a two-hour demonstration that was all about higher-order mathematics, heuristics and algorithms, and teaching machines to think about everything. I turned to the person next to me and said, “Remember when new and exciting was pivot tables in Excel?”
Machine learning is everywhere, just as compute is everywhere. But it’s not Ballmer’s one platform for hardware, software and all the spaces in between. I love Microsoft’s Office 365 platform for productivity – I’m living Satya’s vision of “doing more” because of it. I love my iPad Pro and iOS, which was a game-changing experience for me, so much that I haven’t touched a piece of paper in over a year. I adore how Google just keeps getting smarter at delivering not only the information I need, when I need it, but somehow figuring out what I didn’t even know I needed. Mr. Nadella gets that – the Microsoft experience on the iPad is outstanding now, same with Android. Microsoft and Linux are playing nice in the sandbox. Microsoft wants VMware in Azure. PWAs are going to make Google Apps sit side-by-side with Microsoft apps in the Windows store at some point. And behind all of that is the data – the mountains and mountains of data that Microsoft wants to transform into an intelligent stream of information that leads to smart decisions – some made by humans and some by robots, some made by both together.
In this world, the devices and applications are just a means to an end – the ends being whatever we define them to be. Better crop-yields through IOT soil sensors, better retail revenue through powerful edge devices that deliver targeted advertisements to shoppers in realtime, cooler presentations that impress the heck out of our bosses (that were almost effortless to make). We’ve been focused on the science of compute for so long, but it feels to me at least, that this era is going to be all about the art. Mr. Nadella is removing the science from view – knitting the pieces together so that to the user, it’s invisible and effortless. Until machines achieve sentience, the winners of tomorrow will be the artists that leverage data to do new things. Our economy has always been driven by the visionary artists – but just as the PC democratized computing and gave us common folk amazing new powers, it’s happening again with data right now. What used to be the purview of supercomputers now happens on a cell phone. In that world, Windows does matter less. It’s a piece of the fabric – and the re-org reflects that and makes sense.