The feeling was palpable at the Build 2014 developer conference last week in San Francisco: After years of missteps, false starts and outright beatdowns at the hands of faster-moving competitors, Microsoft is back. Sure, we're just a few months into Satya Nadella's tenure as CEO, and I've been around the block to know that one feel-good tech conference (PDC 2003 anyone?) doesn't guarantee success. But it does feel like we've turned a corner.
First, though, I'd like to give fair due to Steve Ballmer. Although many will point to these changes and declare that such things would never have happened under the aegis of Microsoft's previous CEO, that's not fair or true. Like an incoming US president who benefits from a suddenly surging economy, Mr. Nadella is benefitting from changes that were in the pipeline, in many cases, for many months. Much of this news was in fact signed off on by Steve Ballmer.
What Satya Nadella has brought to Microsoft, however, is hope, diversity and the promise of more change to come. A younger, more forward-looking vibe. A more hip, cloud-focused senior executive who has already plotted the move to the cloud and is now applying these principles to the broader Microsoft.
And although it's not like Mr. Nadella woke up one morning and spouted "mobile first, cloud first" before hopping in the shower, it should be noted that adding the mobile bit to that little reworking of "devices and services" was a bit of inspired genius that certainly has nothing to do with his previous position atop Microsoft's enterprise cloud business. This suggests he's a broad enough thinker to understand Microsoft as a whole. He's not just focused on the parts that map closely to his background.
So what happened last week? My news article, "Microsoft Opens Build 2014 with Windows, Windows Phone Updates" covers most of the day one news, and you can of course scan the front page of the SuperSite for Windows for more. Here, I'd like to be a bit more general. See, it was the overall mood at the show that really struck me in a positive way. And part of the reason is that Microsoft is finally listening.
This is a big deal.
People in the dwindling crowd of journalists and bloggers who focus on Microsoft, as I am, have no doubt noticed that the attitude that the company has towards the press soured over the past several years as its fortunes have sagged. Well, that era is clearly over. Many of the journalists who traveled to San Francisco last week were approached by one or more Microsoft product teams interested in some helpful engagement. Compare this to the Soviet-style secrecy—and childish recriminations—of the Sinofsky reign, and you have the makings of a complete about-face.
That's long overdue, but more importantly, of course, is that Microsoft is also listening to customers. That's one of those phrases that sounds as trite as it is obvious, and certainly no company would ever admit to being customer adverse. But one of the well-understood side effects of that secrecy bit I just mentioned is that no one at Microsoft seemed super-interested in feedback on any of the company's plans until it was too late to matter. This was done under the guise of under-promising and over-delivering. But it was really about Apple envy, and while this kind of secrecy may work for that company, it clearly does not for Microsoft.
So what we saw at Build last week was Terry Myerson—he's in charge of Microsoft's overall OS efforts now, including Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox One—actually providing a bit of guidance about what the firm intends to do to bring Windows 8.1 more in line with customer expectations. No specific time frame was provided—it could be this year or next—and the vehicle for the updates—Update 2, Windows 9, whatever—was likewise left unsaid. But in threading the needle between the hyper-secrecy of the past few years and the freewheeling policies of the Windows group before that, Mr. Myerson found balance. It was as well-intentioned as it was well-received by the developers, press, and customers at the show.
Away from the show, the reaction was a bit more mixed, but that might just be the overwhelming negativity of Twitter, blog comments, and the Internet in general at work. After three years of Microsoft pushing the largely reviled Windows 8 on customers, one should expect last week's announcements to get the haters back on board. But as I noted in "Updates to Windows 8.1 are a Step Forward, Not a Retreat," not everyone gets it yet.
If I'm reading Satya and Company correctly, however, things are changing over there in Redmond. And for those who use, support, and care about Microsoft's products, there's just no way to miss the change that's in the air. Let's enjoy it while it lasts.