Microsoft Is Technology’s Comeback Kid

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Microsoft. For a generation of technology executives, the name strikes fear into even the most iron-willed business leaders. A lion among gazelles, its very gaze into a market could cause investors and analysts to flee in terror. Yet, its name has become a punchline among today’s technorati, a joke about formerly dominant companies evolving into large, plodding kludges. Missed deadlines, delayed products, and canceled features are only some of the ways the company has disappointed both consumer and enterprise users.

The rest of the tech world has not moved slowly. Within just a handful of months of each other in 2006-2008, Apple introduced the iPhone, Amazon introduced AWS, Google introduced Android, and Facebook introduced News Feed. Together, these companies quickly became the quadrumvirate of tech, to the point that MG Siegler wrote last year that: “any rational thinker (meaning those outside of Redmond or anyone who hasn’t made a career as a .Net developer) knows that Microsoft simply no longer belongs” on the list of top tech companies.

From Office to Xbox, Microsoft has had all the individual products and services it needed to fulfill our wildest tech imaginations. Yet it always seemed that inefficiency and politics prevented the company from becoming the key brand in technology.

Microsoft, though, has always had the critical ingredients for success. We expect our data to be portable, usable across all of our devices and apps. We want to be continuously productive and entertained depending on our mood, and we want services that work at the speed of our decentralized, mobile world. From Office to Xbox, Microsoft has had all the individual products and services it needed to fulfill our wildest tech imaginations. Yet it always seemed that inefficiency and politics prevented the company from becoming the key brand in technology.

Times are changing. Just take a sample of some of the recent news over the past few weeks from the Redmond behemoth. It launched Office across devices, including on iPad and Android, to decent acclaim. It’s building a new disruptive startup lab headed by a well-known force from DARPA to take on GoogleX. Bing is now at an 18.6 percent market share in the United States, slowly gaining on Google’s dominant search engine market share. It’s even making Skype group calls free.

Perhaps most importantly, the company finally seems ready to shed its past software strategy and fully embrace the future of cloud-backed devices. Its new CEO, Satya Nadella, published a letter a month ago outlining a renewed focus on positioning Microsoft at the center of this new world by creating a “cloud for everyone, on every device.” Almost at once, it seemed that Microsoft could start to harness its full energy in one direction, including the $20 billion in revenue and $5.66 billion net income in Q1 that it announced last week.

A Microsoft with a strategy is a deadly force in the race for tech supremacy, and Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon are deeply vulnerable. Our device and cloud environment has led to a convergence of strategies between the five major tech players, focused on continuous engagement (with Facebook a major exception, which I will discuss shortly).

Apple, Google, and Amazon all offer devices that can connect you to a world of content; they also offer tools to let you be productive. All three have consumer cloud strategies for you to save your files and data, allowing the companies to seamlessly synchronize your files across devices and apps (Amazon’s offering is much more nascent, particularly its applications, but its intentions are the same). All have initiated key projects in the television space as well, bringing entertainment in the living room into the cloud world.

Microsoft seems to have all the requisite product lines to aggressively compete.

Indeed, of the current four great powers of tech, Facebook seems to be the one potentially facing the most trouble. Its Facebook phone flopped last year, and the company has yet to hint at a next-generation device. While it certainly dominates in certain file categories like photos, it lacks a comprehensive cloud data strategy that would put it at the center of its users’ files. And while Oculus could provide it with a new and unique entertainment offering, such hopes seem distant given the device’s current state of development.

When you consider these strategies, Microsoft seems to have all the requisite product lines to aggressively compete. Its Xbox console already has a strong showing in the home entertainment space, and it managed to ship 1.2 million units of its next-generation Xbox One console last quarter. Its OneDrive already has decent integration behind Office 365, ahead of Apple’s iCloud. Internet Explorer continues to have a dominant share of the desktop web browser market, and Microsoft is beginning to make important forays into content distribution.

In addition, Microsoft has one killer advantage over everyone else: its software lies at the heart of enterprise, meaning that the vast majority of workers are already exposed to its products on a daily basis. This hasn’t always been the best experience – its online Office productivity suite has been buggy and badly integrated across mobile devices, its social features are still immature even following the Yammer acquisition, and its cloud strategy hasn’t had the success that it perhaps wanted. Yet with Microsoft’s renewed focus, its dominance in the corporate world can be a key channel to get it access to consumers.

There is, of course, one gaping hole for Microsoft: mobile. Its acquisition of Nokia notwithstanding, it is clear that Windows Phone is not going to successfully compete with the entrenched offerings of Apple and Google. But this failure may actually be a blessing. Microsoft has no comparative advantage with its own hardware products, so it must build apps and services from the ground up for all devices. In short, it can be the cloud world’s version of Switzerland, offering the most compatible software in the world.

In a world where services are becoming central to the tech industry future, analysts would be remiss to ignore a company that seems just a few careful strategic steps away from rebuilding its shattered empire.

There is plenty of work to do, of course, and the difficulties Microsoft has faced in the past are not going anywhere. Its various software divisions have traditionally worked poorly with one another, and its product leadership has been variable at best. Its focus on rock-solid reliability is a huge point for enterprise, but its product culture often dilutes great design thinking down to checklists that further get cut as deadlines approach. As the company moves away from released software to a subscription model, that pressure will hopefully subside, but the culture needs a significant evolution if it wants to compete.

Microsoft also needs to reintegrate itself with the startup community. Its BizSpark program is noticeable, but its efforts pale in comparison with the general excitement around Amazon’s AWS and Google’s App Engine. On the other side of the pipeline, it needs to reconsider its M&A strategy, which has been noticeably quiet at a time when Apple has quickly accelerated acquisitions, and both Google and Facebook have made significant multi-billion-dollar acquisitions in the past few months.

For Microsoft, these early signs are promising, but all may be for naught. Yet, in a world where services are becoming central to the tech industry future, analysts would be remiss to ignore a company that seems just a few careful strategic steps away from rebuilding its shattered empire.

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