Microsoft’s period of congenial cooperation could be over

A couple of years ago while a guest of Marc Benioff onstage at Salesforce’s Dreamforce customer conference, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said something that seemed to signal a new period of amicable cooperation for his company. Several pieces of evidence seem to suggest that the period of friendly cooperation that was in full bloom in 2015 could be over, and not just with Salesforce.

At the time, Nadella said something rather profound about the need for big brands to cooperate in the age of the cloud: “It is incumbent upon us, especially those of us who are platform vendors to partner broadly to solve real pain points our customers have,” Nadella said in 2015.

When you looked at the comment against the backdrop of the time, it appeared to be a giant signal that Microsoft was open to forging new agreements with competitors that would be mutually beneficial to the companies involved, and would help customers solve those real pain points he alluded to.

Essentially, Nadella was stating the obvious that in the age of the cloud, companies needed to work together more than ever before because customers were demanding it. Yet even at that time, Nadella made it clear his company fully intended to compete hard within markets against Salesforce and everyone else — the cooperation only went so far — but he saw an opportunity for his company by playing the role of affable partner.

This was in stark contrast to the model that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer followed. Back then, it was more of a battle of large companies with full stacks trying to lock customers into their computing approach. In that world, working together wasn’t a desirable goal, which is why Nadella’s more conciliatory tone was so surprising to hear in 2015.

The same went for long-time rival Apple. After years of going at it with Apple, Microsoft was looking to soften things a bit. Perhaps Tim Cook put it best at the partnership announcement when he said, “Apple and Microsoft can partner on more things than we can compete on, and that is what the customer wants…Office on the Mac is a force. Partnering with Microsoft is great for our customers and that’s why we do it,” Cook told the audience at BoxWorks in 2015 when that spirit was in its full glory

By 2017, however, it has become increasingly clear that the message we should have listened to wasn’t the cooperation part, but the fact the Microsoft would compete hard in markets. As they move forward, Microsoft’s softer side under Nadella appears to be hardening a bit. The tone has shifted and gotten a bit harsher and they are, as he told us, competing hard.

When the company beat out Salesforce last year for some CRM business at HP, Microsoft cloud head, Scott Guthrie, couldn’t hide his competitive glee when he called the deal a “Salesforce takeout.” Suddenly the two firms were competing a bit more fiercely, the tone was getting a bit harsher and the time for nice talk and smiles was over.

Onstage last week at Dreamforce, while announcing a deal with his new bestie Diane Greene, head of Google Cloud, Benioff took a swipe right back at Microsoft’s flagship Office product. “We have 30,000 users on G Suite, and have for a very long time. Getting off of Microsoft Office was probably one of the best decisions we ever made,” Benioff said. (Who says the enterprise is boring?)

Meanwhile, last week at a talk in India, Nadella told two Indian journalists using iPads that they should get “real computers.” It was said in a joking manner, but it was also clearly a swipe at Apple, too. His company’s hardware is a real computer, whereas Apple is what? A toy computer? You can fill it in, I guess.

The ad campaigns over the last several years have also taken aim at Apple, pointing out the things that computers like the Microsoft Surface Pro can do that Apple computers can’t. Of course, it’s one thing for an ad to take aim at a rival, it’s another when the CEO does it.

Even as they continue to use harsher language regarding competitors, Microsoft is still finding ways to interoperate with rivals, and that’s not going away. At the same time, Microsoft has become a significant contributor to the open-source community under Nadella (see herehere  and here as examples), and that is unlikely to change either.

Look, you don’t expect competing companies to join hands around the campfire singing Kumbaya, but there clearly has been a shift in tone over the last couple of years. It appears that while Microsoft and its technology industry rivals are still looking for ways to make the products work together for the sake of customers, maybe they are doing so now a bit more begrudgingly.