Turning The Ship: Microsoft Might Have Begun A Subtle Shift From Windows To Services

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Since Steve Ballmer passed the torch to Satya Nadella earlier this year, it marked a sea change in the organization: the first time in its history one of the founding team wasn’t running the show. Changes were expected and have happened. A surprising one is a subtle shift toward a service model and what appears to be an understanding that as long as people are running Microsoft tools, the hardware and underlying operating system don’t matter.

For a company that has been driven by the underlying OS for most of its existence, this is not a minor matter

It’s highly likely that such a shift started long before Nadella took the reins at Microsoft, but when it comes turning a ship the size of Microsoft, sometimes perhaps it takes a new leader to push the company in the new direction.

That’s partly because being such a large organization, Microsoft doesn’t just have to deal with the nuts and bolts of a shifting strategy, they also have to deal with internal politics and a strong culture that might fight any change. There is a hard and fast attitude inside many large organizations that any change is a threat on some level because it has impact on your power within the organization, whether you consciously acknowledge that or not.

Part of being a CEO is finding a way to manage the politics and culture and start the shift to a new way of working. Maybe Ballmer, because of his longevity and his own biases, simply wasn’t capable of bringing the company to the next level. That would take a new leader with a different vision, alliances and biases.

David Linthicum writing about the difficulty organizations have moving to the cloud pointed out, rightly in my view, that what was holding back many organizations from going all in on the cloud was not the technology itself, but that it required a cultural change inside IT to make it happen. I believe a similar dynamic plays out in any large organization when it comes to any major change.

So it was telling when one of Nadella’s chief lieutenants, executive VP in charge of operating systems Terry Myerson, told ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley that he was OK with a services model. Specifically, when she asked about the Nokia X line of phones–those new low-priced Android phones running Microsoft services announced at Mobile World Congress. He was cool with a phone running Android, precisely because he was happy to see Microsoft services running on as many devices as possible, regardless of the operating system

This is a huge acknowledgement from a senior executive that as a company, they see the value of selling services over the old Windows-Office model in which you bought Windows and ran Windows software. It remains how they make a good deal of their money.

Simply acknowledging this idea of services on many devices and operating systems is a change for Microsoft, and although it may be a quick answer to a question by a Microsoft executive, it shows a shift in vision that I don’t recall seeing before.

Of course, this one remark doesn’t mean the whole company has a new attitude about this, but even talking in these terms is a huge step for Microsoft, and if Nadella can continue to turn the ship, you never know.

It’s worth noting that I remain a skeptic that Microsoft can truly make this change, until proven otherwise, but I’m impressed to see at least some inklings that this old dog maybe could learn some new tricks. You never know.