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How (and why) Microsoft's CEO is carrying his predecessors' legacies

Satya Nadella
Satya Nadella (Image credit: Windows Central)

Nadella is often criticized for focusing Microsoft too heavily on AI and the cloud. But a closer look at Microsoft's history reveals that he's merely carrying the baton passed to him from his predecessors.

Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates strived to set the company on a course toward AI and the cloud. His successor, Steve Ballmer, carried those efforts further by stressing Microsoft's AI and cloud commitments. He even referenced Microsoft's vision of a pocketable folding device that would benefit from the cloud.

Let's take a closer look.

Nadella honors predecessors

Microsoft logo

Microsoft logo (Image credit: Windows Central)

During a 2017 GeekWire interview, Nadella shared the investments at the forefront of Microsoft's efforts didn't begin with his tenure:

I'm very excited about what we're doing in mixed reality ... AI, ... even ... quantum. [All] these efforts didn't get started three and a half years ago. It's really Bill who started MSR. It's Steve who started our cloud push. These ... folks ... saw it long before it was conventional wisdom ... these are the things that can be successful.

Tech writers are challenged with presenting analysis about an industry that makes bets up to 20 years down the road, for an audience focused on a yearly device cycle. Readers who want the latest device news frequent sites like ours to satisfy that appetite - and we deliver. Interspersed between the reviews, news, and leaks are analyses about where the companies feeding you these devices have been, where they're going and how they'll get there.

Bill opens gates for AI

Over 20 years ago, Microsoft introduced Microsoft Bob. It was a PC-based digital assistant that Microsoft envisioned would be a Windows user's companion. Bob didn't benefit from the ubiquitous internet, mature machine learning, advanced natural language understanding or evolved AI investments. It flopped. Still, Bill Gates had a vision for an advanced AI-driven digital assistant which he shares in the archaic video above.

Years later Gates shared the following, which describes our current experiences with AI digital assistants.

We see where you're going …your calendar … your various communications, some of those communications we can actually look at the tags, look at the speech, try to be helpful to you in your activities…I think that we will be more connected, so that when somebody wants to find a gift of a certain type, or take a trip in a certain way, that there will be a closer match.

AI is not limited to digital assistants. Microsoft's mission is to infuse AI into everything from the cloud, IoT and its range of products and services.

The difference between AI, machine learning and digital assistants

Ballmer loud about the cloud

In March 2010 Steve Ballmer (opens in new tab) gave a speech where he pushed Microsoft's cloud commitments. He followed that speech with a memo to Microsoft employees which highlighted the cloud:

  • Creates opportunities and responsibilities.
  • Learns and helps you learn, decide and take action.
  • Enhances your social and professional interactions.
  • Wants smarter devices.
  • Drives server advances that drive the cloud.

He referenced the company's decade-long cloud investments and said, "To keep our momentum, it is critical that every Microsoft employee works to deliver the full benefits of the cloud to our customers."

In 2013, he stressed the company's commitment to AI and a shell that would support all of Microsoft essential services. This shell, he stressed, would respond seamlessly to users' requests and would understand and anticipate users' needs.

Clearly, Microsoft's cloud and AI investments precede Nadella's brief tenure at the company's helm.

Cloud-connected devices with a common shell

The Windows 10 family of devices is positioned to showcase a common shell and a cloud-supported mobility of experiences. This vision was also passed to Nadella by Ballmer who said in a 2013 memo (opens in new tab):

To take advantage of our critical competitive assets, we will center our work on… partner and first-party devices with both consumer and enterprise services… A family of devices powered by a service-enabled shell… No technology company has as yet delivered a definitive family of devices useful all day for work and for play, connected with every bit of a person's information available through one cloud. Our devices must share a common user-interface approach tailored to each hardware form factor.

Windows Core OS, which brings the full power of Windows to all form factors, and CShell (Composable Shell), which adapts the Windows UI in real-time to various devices types (think Continuum), are the evolution of this vision.

Pocketable folding device, mixed reality and beyond

Ballmer references pocketable, folding device.

Microsoft's Windows Mixed Reality efforts didn't begin with Nadella. HoloLens was well underway when he took the helm, though it was previously gaming-focused.

Additionally, Windows phone fans are not alone in their desire for a foldable mobile device that could slip into a pocket. Steve Ballmer elaborates ever so briefly about such a device after sharing Microsoft's future vision in the 2010 video above.

Ballmer's stresses the capabilities of such a device (and other devices) when connected to the cloud. Nadella's leadership has simply advanced that vision as edge computing, particularly on 5G networks, will make cloud computing profoundly powerful.

Microsoft must leverage eSIM, partnerships and edge computing to position ultramobiile PCs

Nadella's tenure is benefiting from the decades of investments that preceded him. And though he is carrying the baton of his predecessors he has made decisions that are his own. And like his predecessors, for good or bad, he is building a legacy that his successor too, will inherit.

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

60 Comments
  • Let's hope his (Nadella's) successor gets here much sooner than later.
  • Amen.
  • Hey. You aren't allowed to say that here.
  • This guy is as illiterate as DONALD TRUMP! They can't get rid of him fast enough! I told you guys he was a psycho! "Hey Alexa, ask Cortana to". That's crazy, why wouldn't I say, "Alexa, do this task or that task"?
  • Sustaining what he has been given all the way. The path is luminous ahead ;)
  • In other words Nadella is good only in cancelling the products :-(
  • I feel like Nadella gets a bad rap because he cancelled a lot of products but I don't think he really had a choice. He saw the obvious fails and decided to streamline the focus of the whole company. Good move.
  • Slightly disagree with you there. Windows Mobile defnitely had a market (in other parts of the world) and Band was a surprise hit. I wonder how successful those products were today, if they were from Amazon or if Steve was the CEO 
  • Pity he hasn't "streamlined" the Enterprise focus of Microsoft as well!!!!
  • If you don't put any effort into any product outside of the cloud of course it will fail! This is not a surprise. I'm surprised the white house isn't using more Microsoft products since both the president and Satya Nadella are out of their minds!
  • You have Trump Derangement Syndrome. Please get psychiatric help.
  • No sir I don't he Ann's Satya are obsessed with killing anything theirs predecessor' s implemented, this is fact Ann's offer all, I could care less because the president doesn't care about low level people's opinions and nor does Satya. I'm a realist so I accept three fact that people like them are so self absorbed that they won't listen to intelligent staff around them no matter what! You sir ignore the reality of our current situation with both the president of the U.S. and Microsoft's current CEO.
  • @iSantAndrews. He definitely has a choice, just like Ballmer had a choice if he wanted to spend 1.15 Billion Dollars taking of customers during the RROD fiasco and Ballmer made that choice without hesitating. Sure Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates, made mistakes and but they weren't afraid to take risks even when tech was not quite ready suchas the Spot Smartwatch, the bulky XP tablets just to name two examples. You see it's all about risk, the first rule of investment is protect your investment and the second rule is diversify where possible so you can always offset your losses and you can create additional leverage / growth points / sectors to increase your return on investment. The more competition the higher the risk, lower the return as you need to spend more to generate sales which is why you see Microsoft hardly market their products. Based on those two core principles, Satya fails because he has conceded many sectors to the competition thus all the work his predecssors did before him have floundered (investment not protected) and he has shrunk the portofilio substantially in order generate short term profits thus forgoing the ability to leverage and create additional sectors. Sure, he can still do that but with increase risk and lower chances of return on investment (second rule fail). So in order to make up loss ground, Microsoft is going to have be bold and ambitious not risk averse. I'm liking where they are heading with WoA although I have my reservations in regards to the lower end of spectrum in terms of price points. I am hoping WoA will provide a renewed focus in fixing tablet mode and UWP.
  • That's what it looks like, I haven't seen anything come out of Microsoft that wasn't put in place by his predecessors. I don't see any strategy in what Nadella is doing.
  • Nadella is poor CEO.
  • still hope he will be fired asap
  • Yet Nadella hasn't cancelled or discontinued a single Enterprise focused product, why, well that's because the only two things he's focused on are the Enterprise and the Cloud.
    Face it, Nadella HATES consumers otherwise we wouldn't see consumer focused products being cancelled or discontinued with no roadmap or replacement.
  • Although Nadella's management has brought much rationalism and good overall results in the short term, I think the Microsoft leadership today is made of too many "technicians". It lacks charismatic figures with a truly strategical vision capable of changing the mindshare just like the competitors do. They are playing a too defensive game, they are following too much instead of leading. I hope to be soon denied though. 
  • That's what happens when techies are in charge unfortunately, I liked Ballmer because he wasn't a techie and had no problems with throwing money at something to see if it sticks.
  • Under Balmer Microsoft went from being a number 1 to 0. Seen him ridicule the iPhone? Please.. I am not a Nadella fan, but Balmer screwed up big time.. let's remember him with his frailities and his humanness and not turn him into a demigod that he wasn't. I remember so many people jumping ship because we didn't have apps.. all this while they were producing 950s and talking about making the next device. Heck some windows Central guys were jumping ship when 950s were still made
  • Nope, it did not. That is currently happening under the current CEO however there are good signs but I given past trends. He is under a microscope, whether he likes it or not as there far toooooo many broken promises and far tooooo many burnt bridges.   1)  He said: "We will target the duo user" but what happened? we got a total consumer retrenchment 2) He said: "We will build phones if no one else will" - the lumia accessory programme gets cut before it even takes off and the mobile division is axed before the launch of the Lumia 950 and 950 XL resulting in THE most diabolical flagship products Microsoft has ever produced (in terms of product reliability + software interactivity). 3) Very visible support for competitor platforms and none for Microsoft's own ecosystem. 4) He changed his mind in regards to the Nokia D & S acquisition, prior to becoming CEO he came onboard with the idea. Got hired and axed the mobile division then reveals he was not onboard with the decision at all. 5) Complete and utter risk aversion has enabled Android to take the mantle of the most interacted O/S I seriously can write a novel of all the double speak and unkept promises spoken through technobabble + jargon. I have nothing against Satya Nadella as an individual, my concerns are with the silly decisions amounting to crazy numbers of missteps and total lack of empathy. A little history: When the iphone launched Microsoft was selling Windows Mobile smartphones by the bucket load. The only draw back is that it did not have a cohesive application store, each OEM had their own app store and many models had their own series variant of the app store. When the iphone launched it had zero apps and did not even have copy + paste let alone email functionality. Apple was fortunate as they had that "free pass vibe" and that said vibe has been wearing off over the years. Furthermore Microsoft bailed Apple out when they were about to go caput. So if Microsoft had not bailed out Apple, the iphone would not exist. There is clear difference of idolisation and accountability for mistakes, plus under Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer - Microsoft became the power house that we all know today. In order to retain being that power house, Microsoft has to be 100% behind all their products, no half-hearted attempts and no US-only product launches.
  • Well said..
  • Still mad at Satya because of Windows 10 Mobile situation! I really love it and it's a damn shame to see Google adapting it's hardware to new API's searching for the perfect experience, contrasting with Microsoft who didn't even tried a new Shell for improved performance on W10M. Call me crazy but I really love the W10M experience!
  • The excuses being written about Nadella "cutting the fat" just because consumers weren't buying the products is greatly his own fault for not marketing enough (and sorry, "paying" developers to write apps was not the right solution). The company is drowning in cash yet spends zilch on advertising. When did anyone see a Band commercial? or Xbox using Kinect? or streaming music through Groove? Of course these products were destined to fail. If the buck doesn't stop with Nadella on poor marketing, then someone should really be replaced over there.
  • Right after we bought our Xbox One w/Kinect, I thought this would be the big opportunity for Microsoft to own the home automation market.  I even kept bugging our Vivint dealer about partnering w/Microsoft to integrate their service.  Our home has a pretty open-concept implementation, and the Kinect can see us a large part of the time and hear us from everywhere except the back bedrooms.  Being able to leverage what Kinect, as a device, was capable of against what Microsoft SHOULD have done with it and the Xbox, would have been great.  How those idiots didn't see that they could have made home automation a breeze if they would only develop it, is beyond me.  By now, we should have already been able to give commands to the Xbox w/Kinect to change the temp, turn on/off lights, set the alarm system.  All of it.  Absolutely NO reason they couldn't have done it.
  • Indeed. Long ago I mentioned to Microsoft that the Kinect should be the ultimate smart remote. It had the IR blaster. It had the processing power like no other remote. It would have been amazing to see an Xbox app that allowed you to program macros, timings, etc., like all other smart remotes, to control everything with an IR receiver in the house, or at least in the rooms that could receive the signal. Next they could have integrated WiFi controls that allowed any device connected to your network to be controlled. Etc. Etc. Etc. But they failed miserably and had zero foresight at all. Complete failure of management to see an amazing opportunity that is now, just a few years later, being dominated by every other player in the market while Microsoft scratches it's head and wonders WTF happened.
  • Don't forget about Insteon. They are still in the game working with Windows mobile and Cortana on the Invoke. Take a look at Insteon. It uses a great dual communication system that forms a mesh in your home. The devices interact receiving and repeating the commands to each other.
  • Is it me, or does the comment section on this website suck?  I can't use the app because that doesn't work either.  Anyways though, All I've ever heard Nadella really go on and on about was diversity, inclusion, and other SJW crap that probably only works for less that 10% of businesses.  The guy is a joke and is turning Microsoft into one.
  • Yeah - the app is crap...
  • Well, the article is fine. Microsoft has had 3 visionary CEOs. Whether it was Bill Gates with his vision of a PC on every desk or Ballmer's drive into cloud services. Nadella is saying AI, ML, Quantum Computing. In a few years maybe these "blue sky" objectives that Nadella champions will happen. At the other end of the scale, Nadella is realising shareholder value in Microsoft by monetising previous visions. Azure, Office 365, Minecraft, Xbox. Windows is less of an earner these days, particularly on the client side.  The key question is what products are bringing the vision to consumers. Looking at mobile, a concern of readers of Windows Central, there is more confusion than vision. If the Surface Unicorn device was a longstanding vision then you might expect Microsoft to keep Windowsphone until it was ready to make it the perfect upgrade to those who care about Microsoft services. Maybe an enhanced Lumia 950 with a Snapdragon 835 at a price that does cover the costs. Something that keeps developers, customers and business committed. They could have even backed HP and Alcatel to avoid spending their own money and re-assured them about mobile as manufacturing partners. The vision is good. I won't bash Nadella. He runs a business, not a fan club. Microsoft still has mobile ambitions. Apple and Google envy. It lacks mobile love in the form of the dedication to bring superb devices to market. The launch of the Lumia 950 was 30 seconds tacked on to a Surfacebook launch. If you love mobile it is a product launch.  Worse still is the side impact of not releasing any mobile flagship since 2015. Cortana is now competing with Bixby as the virtual assistant that has the least market penetration on mobile. Home AI is 12 to 18 months from being competition with  Amazon and Google. Cortana isn't even fully formed outside the USA. Most countries can't use Microsoft AI and the ones that do have lesser features than US customers even though it debuted in 2012. Groove just disappeared and now Cortana can't even tell you what song is playing. Cortana and AI for consumers crippled by no holistic view of matching products with vision. Microsoft could just forget about consumer products. It will still be a great profitable company. Right now I think the product decisions don't seem to match the destination. We will probably be able to judge better when Nadella becomes the outgoing CEO some years from now.  
  • He's already lost AI, mobile, and soon to be enterprise by assisting Amazon by getting their AI on windows computers. If I'm going to use their AI, why not also use AWS or Google cloud? with his lack of effort; if you think otherwise, please provide facts in any of the three areas you mention
  • words fail me to describe this guy Nadella.
  • "They could have even backed HP and Alcatel to avoid spending their own money and re-assured them about mobile as manufacturing partners." Love that. Wish the did that with Nokia.
  • Actually they did, Nokia was also heavily incentivised by Microsoft and they also got greater O/S access compared to other OEMs. Another reason why OEMs didn't pick up on Wp8.x and WM10, the primary one being burnt heavily after the WP7.x kernel switch from Windows CE (WP7.x) to the NT Kernal (WP8.x). 
  • Nutella = IBM 2.0
  • Lol.  Made me chuckle since my company uses IBM Notes.  now I'll go back to crying.
  • "Bill opens gates for AI"..... Pun intended?
  • You like that😉
  • Nice catch
  • Please!  He has been captain of the ship long enough to have begun steering a different course.  
  • who cares about Nutdella. he was just a trojan. if he takes off his shirt he'd have a big apple tattoo on his chest
  • People hate work. Windows reminds them of work. Nadella is cutting the fat but isn't gaining muscle. That only makes one skinny. No muscle in marketing, Cortana, or anything consumer that reminds one of play. The crazy thing is, if they build and promote it, they will come. Normal people don't give a care about VR or AI.
  • Agree. VR and AI will never be materially adopted in the consumer world. It will always be a niche product for the diehard tech folks. I've looked into MR, but ultimately decided against it because I'm pretty certain that within a year or two Microsoft will stop supporting it just like they have all of their other consumer-facing products. And I'm no longer willing to take the risk on anything Microsoft promotes given their track record of killing everything they introduce in short order.
  • The Massively Screwed-up dys-Functional Team was poised to rule home automation and the living room with things like Kinect, Windows Media Center and Windows Home Server. Kinect = Alexa on steriods Windows Media Center = Roku/Apple TV and they must have paid a fortune to get it CableLabs Certification.  That will never happen again and WMC probably could be made to run on the XBONE Windows Home Server = Personal cloud computing?  Way ahead of its time! What do all 3 have in common?  No one knew about them!  With the exception of the competition and they knew that the MSFT would abandon the products because they have no idea how to deal with the consumer.  XBOX is a success but it could be so much more than a gaming platform. I didn't chime in on Dan's latest on the Massively Screwed-up dys-Functional Team cutting the fat but I'll chime in here.  The MSFT just plain screws up consumer products.  We are seriously going to bring out Microsoft Bob as the forefront of AI?!?!  I was around when that thing came out and it was totally bogus.  If the MSFT is hanging its hat on Bob, then the fat lady is singing!
  • Pardon me, but I need to rant a bit. I used to be a raving Microsoft fanboy. I was even invited by Microsoft to the Surface Pro 2 launch in New York. I went. It was the day after my wedding. Things were good until Nutella took over. And now I've gone from a raving fanboy to someone that would never recommend another Microsoft consumer product. 1) I've purchased every Surface device from the first Pro to the SP3. But I will never purchase another Surface.
    2) I had Windows Phone/Mobile from the beginning. But no matter what they release in the future, I won't buy in. I'm not willing to take the chance of them killing it off again.
    3) Kinect, dead.
    4) Zune, dead.
    5) Groove subscription, dead.
    6) Band, dead.
    7) Cortana, dying.
    8) HoloLens, a distance dream.
    9) Mixed Reality, a stop-gap measure that will never gain traction.
    10) Windows 10, a hodge podge of half-baked feature implementations.
    11) Xbox One X, this will be the last Xbox I purchase because Microsoft has focused far too much on extreme gaming and pushed the entertainment aspect of the device, which is what I use most, to the background.
    12) What have I forgotten? It's pretty bad when you can push a lunatic like me from an incredible fan to a walking advertisement against you.
  • In regards to Point 11, a Xbox based smart tv O/S would be perfect as it would create another monitisation avenue for developers and Microsoft as well as addressing the multimedia functionality that has been taken out of the xbox and that means they can solely focus on gaming with the console and the smart tv o/s for multimedia.
  • I've said that for a few years now.  I can't believe it hasn't happened yet.  It's a no-brainer IMO but Nadella is a moron and more concerned about selling his book.
  • For me Satya Nadella could have made a major mark with UWP, another reason why - during one of board member meetings / calls. He talked about the UWP vision and it's potential. But... we know what has since transpired complete and utter lack of visible focus on UWP... also another reason why he is under a microscope. I am seeing really great things however I am very sceptical and I am not the only one, which does not bode will for Microsoft. They have a long way to go before they can repair the bridges and the only way to do that is to be bold and ambitious, in the enterpise and consumer space. If the Andromeda device is anything like the renders from the patents then that would fit into that category. I hope it has a nano sim and e sim support.
  • Nadella has tripled the stock price since 2014 - great for shareholders.  So I get some people love him. But I still don't see how abandoning mobile phones helps.   Was MS pouring billions into it?  Ok Nokia acquisition, yes, but what about after that?  Was mobile killing the financially?  Does MS not see the value of end user consumers and mobile?  Enterprise - don't think they will embrace mobile?  Or is there something I am missing? Cortana - why come out with it? But if you like the stock price - I have to give an a gold star to Nadella. Of course, I do not own any MS shares.....just a Windows Phone....
  • No, the share price increase is a result from organic growth from Cloud, plus Trump in the last year gave it an extra boost. Nutella ain't done anything.
  • That thing has no bearing on share price growth, the previous administration is responsible until October 1st as that is when the fiscal year begins and it ends on the 30th of September the following year.  
  • Summary of comments so far: Hate Nadella, Bitter Me! Comments on this site are appalling and sad.
  • I am afraid that it is a result of the current state od Windows Central. Little of interest so c;lick-bait articles to bring in the I hate Nadella trolls
  • Hi Oldman88 that's a wholly inaccurate assessment.🤨 One, the title is far from click-bait.
    Two, the purpose of the piece is to address the misconception stated in the opening sentence: "Contrary to what some critics may believe, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's AI and cloud focus is not a new direction for the company." As a person that is driven to help impart understanding and help people see what they may not see, I am motivated to write ✍🏿 for those reasons. So contrary to your very superficial and inaccurate assessment, though trolls may respond to my work, the goal is to impart to those readers with a desire to expand thier perspective, stimulate thier intellect and to perhaps promote thoughtful discussion and the sharing of these ideas.🤔
  • @ Jason Ward, most people won't remember as both short term and long term memory has detoriated through the prolonged use of social media and lack of thought retention as almost everyone just shares their thoughts without think twice about the possible ramifications / consequences. Thus reducing the ability to foresee, on the flip side hindsight is only improved when misunderstandings or misconstrued information is correct but even then given people generally surround themselves with likeminded individuals, hindsight also falls to the way side. As a result, critical thinking suffers and the ability to associate coherent thought processes towards actions also detoriates thus affecting mannerisms, moral and ethical behaviour. After that it's a down ward spiral, hence why most cannot tell the difference between false information and concrete facts. Resilience is a unspoken, profound and strong human trait, hence the the strong emphasis on solidarity and with the on going trend of pushing back against the status quo a state of equilibrium will be achieved. The question is when and until then it will be an up and down cycle.  
  • I know most people like to hate Nadella but I actually think he is a good leader. Companies usually focus on products that they do well. For Microsoft it is clearly cloud, xbox, windows, office, etc. There is no point in desparatly clinging on and pumping loads of money into products and services the public and market has rejected. This is exactly what they are doing the past years, putting resources on focusing on their strengths. Also to the contrary what others might believe, Microsoft is doing very well in the spaces their are competing. Their isn't one tech company that "owns" all ecosystem categories. Google for instance tried years for a good social and messaging platform and failed, Apple has been losing in the PC/Mac department for year, Samsung their Tizen and their Galaxy Store push hasn't worked out, the Amazon phone failed miserably etc. Not every major IT company has to sell books, music, movies, phones, series etc.
  • technology in consumer space is only succesfull if you can use it without knowing it's there
  • I believe in Satya.
  • What I see from him is just care for the bottom line. If it don't make more money now, just cut it out.
    The past greats had passion in the benefits of their products. If their was any marketing of that for the W10M, it may not be where it's at.
  • Basic science often don't make money in the beginning but as time goes on a ecosystem has been created and more science can be build upon it. Hence Windows Phone should have been kept on as a fundament for the next user base. In some sense it actually has been kept around. Many people forget that Windows 10 mobile iss still seeing updates compared to Android phones who see around two years of support.