Microsoft. Depending on your age and experiences in the world of technology, that single word can conjure up all kinds of imagery in your head — and not all of it good.
For some, it will be pleading in vain with Office to "Please. Just. Work." For a younger generation of gamers, Microsoft is perhaps more entertainment company than oppressive PC overlord. For many, though, Microsoft is a company to scoff about whenever it announces anything at all.
Painting a target on its own back
It’s easy to see why the second Microsoft says anything these days, certain people are instantly ready to crow about the company and its plans. This is, after all, an industry giant that didn’t so much fumble the ball when it came to mobile as set fire to it and then reach for a flamethrower rather than a fire extinguisher. It also plodded along, dinosaur-style, while smaller, sleeker rivals blazed past elsewhere. Google grabbed the web. Apple stole the profitable end of the PC industry and, for good measure, made its OS free.
Meanwhile, the enterprise was seduced by the iPad, and yet Office remained stubbornly absent from that device. Presumably, the thinking was everyone would switch to Surface; the reality was they just switched to different apps. But then Satya Nadella was installed in the Microsoft CEO hot-seat, and there were hints of change ahead.
Behind the scenes innovation
With the most recent event, it’s very clear the company has now — if you’ll pardon the use of the phrase — really started to think different. It looks very much like a Microsoft not just trying to get back in the game, but that’s making a big play to win it by being bloody good, rather than just sort-of good enough.
Naturally, on seeing the raft of exciting new features in Windows 10, and Microsoft’s ambitious plans to put its OS everywhere, along with a future full of holograms, there were snarky comments that at last Microsoft was innovating. And when new browser and possible Internet Explorer replacement Spartan loomed into view, there was palpable relief that at last the horror of IE will soon be over. (Ish — old browsers tend to live on, zombie-style, for some time.)
The reality is Microsoft never stopped innovating. Look back at any point in the company’s history, and it’s always tried out new and exciting ideas. And with the likes of Internet Explorer, Microsoft also in recent years showcased an ability to improve old, tired products, turning them into something really rather good. It’s clear not enough people notice these things. Innovation and improvements got drowned out in a sea of corporate drudgery that no-one much cares about — Microsoft therefore too often continued to be synonymous with boring work rather than entertainment and fun.
A change of tack, or simply a change of management?
But the real change that appears throughout everything Microsoft is announcing now can be summed up in another single word: coherence. In years gone by, it was clear plenty of smart people at Microsoft had plenty of smart ideas, but they were stomped on by executives keen to ensure nothing distracted from, competed with, or was remotely detrimental to, the company’s cash cows. So what we got was sporadic innovation from small teams, often competing against management and Microsoft itself, which wanted something else to happen.
Today, it feels more like the whole company is moving forward as one, thinking different from the top down. Perhaps this shift has arrived from the harsh reality that Microsoft is no longer the ten-ton gorilla up against some terrified tech gazelles, but more on an equal footing with its contemporaries. Still, everywhere you look: HoloLens; Continuum; game streaming and DVR functionality; Spartan; smartphones; and tablets, there are bold approaches that make a great deal of sense in the current tech environment.
Now, Microsoft just has to follow through and make good on its promises, and not get sucked back into the old way of doing things.