Ten years is a long time. But it's even longer when you're talking technology, where platforms can rise to ubiquity and fall to anonymity quicker than in any other industry and there's no such thing as "business as usual."
The 2010s were mostly good to Microsoft, and the company embarks on a new decade with a strong brand and healthy bottom line. As we welcome the 2020s, we looked back on the previous decade's highs and lows for Microsoft, its products and platforms, the company's leadership and its millions of users.
These are the 12 most momentous Microsoft stories of the 2010s.
October 2011: Microsoft closes Skype deal
It's kind of difficult to imagine a time when Microsoft and Skype weren't old pals. However, before the 2011 transaction, Skype had changed hands a couple of times, from eBay to a Silver Lake investment group. The Microsoft acquisition story broke mid-October of that year, about a half-year after it was announced that Skype would be coming to Windows Phone 7. Microsoft shelled out a cool $8.5 billion to acquire the internet communications pioneer, and while the purchase was announced earlier in the year, the deal was finalized October 13, 2011.
Then Skype CEO Tony Bates became President of Skype Division at Microsoft, reporting directly to then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. At the time the story went live, we were curious to see how the implementation of Skype would happen with Windows 8 and Windows Phone. We all know how that ended up. Windows Phone is effectively dead, and Skype comes baked into every Windows 10 PC.
June 2012: Microsoft announces Surface Pro
Microsoft's Surface Pro was a critical and controversial release. Announced June 18, 2012, during what many called the "post-PC era" of declining laptop sales, Microsoft kept pushing the concept until it finally resonated with the masses three years later. It can also be credited with reinvigorating a stagnant laptop industry, and making Ultrabooks not only relevant and exciting but keeping sales alive too. Microsoft did all of this while not alienating its key PC partners like HP, Dell, and Lenovo, who all benefited in the long run.
Initially mocked, the Surface Pro has become the poster child for innovation and a radical rethinking of what a laptop could be for modern users. But it wasn't until Surface Pro 3 and Surface Pro 4 that Microsoft truly realized its vision. Since then, steady improvements, including removing fans, has made the Surface Pro one of the best PCs around.
Microsoft still occasionally struggles with hardware issues like Intel's Skylake processor fiasco from 2015, battery degradation problems, processor throttling, and never including the Type Cover in the final pricing. But the company mostly treats these as learning moments and always seems to improve from the bad press.
As we head into 2020, the Surface Pro design is now so iconic companies like Apple and Google borrow heavily from Microsoft. The Surface Pro is now accepted as a legitimate alternative to the traditional laptop – not a gimmick, not a fad. It also solidified Microsoft's hardware ambitions and is the base for all future Surface hardware.
Microsoft still has more work to do with the Surface Pro – there can never be too much battery or processing power – but the overall concept is here to stay. Surface Pro X is an offshoot of that design pushing mobility even further. And the forthcoming dual-screen Surface Neo is an even more radical theory of mobile computing that is about to kick off the next decade.
August 2012: Microsoft releases the mess that was Windows 8
Windows 8 was among Microsoft's most radical changes ever made to its desktop platform. Amid the rise of smartphones and tablets, Redmond saw real threat from the growth of portable productivity, developing a new touch-optimized Windows Shell around the "Metro" design language.
Under the leadership of then-CEO, Steve Ballmer, and Windows head, Steven Sinofsky, it introduced the controversial tile-based Start screen and closed app store, doubling down on the allure of mobile OSes. But Windows 8 was largely considered a disappointment among consumers and enterprises upon its October 2012 launch, straying too far from the company's legacy desktop vision. While Microsoft felt it was the major change Windows needed, with some values still present today, it simply lacked the familiarity most desired.
Microsoft would later backpedal on those changes, releasing the free Windows 8.1 update, reintroducing the Start button, and allowing users to boot to the desktop. But the damage was done, with Windows 8 usage dwarfed by Windows 7, and other past variants. Microsoft would later find its balance with Windows 10, available as a free upgrade for Windows 7 and 8 users, but Windows 8 is arguably Microsoft's low-point for the decade, and it was clear the company simply had to do better with its next Windows OS release.
July 2013: Steve Ballmer announces "One Microsoft" vision
In July of 2013, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced a sweeping reorganization of the company. This reorg was meant to unify the company's notoriously divided sectors and create a more cohesive, unified "One Microsoft." The shift was to optimize the talents and resources of each division and to make cross-collaboration within the company more efficient. The desired outcome for customers was that there would be a more organic and integrated synergy of Microsoft's products and services.
Ballmer's successor Satya Nadella embraced this, and Ballmer's vision became the catalyst for a major cultural shift that propelled the company forward during the last decade.
Some Microsoft employees say the past atmosphere of fear has been replaced with a culture that encourages taking risks with new things and learning from failures.
This new culture is evident in many of the bold moves the company has made in the past decade, such as decisively cutting investments in areas where the company could not compete, prioritizing cloud computing over Windows, investing heavily in other platforms, and pushing tech innovation with products like HoloLens are just a few examples.
September 2013: Microsoft acquires Nokia
The history of Microsoft's mobile efforts arguably had no single bigger story than the acquisition of the internationally adored Nokia. Prior to this, Microsoft had struck an agreement with the Finnish phone maker to put Windows Phone on its devices, finally bringing Nokia a more modern solution than the, at this point, ancient Symbian.
So, for over $7 billion, Microsoft got itself a first-party smartphone brand that most could agree prolonged the life of Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile, albeit not for too long.
But at the time, this was the most exciting news Windows Phone fans could have imagined. Microsoft would not only make the platform but funnel its huge wealth into making phones. The future was bright. For a short time, anyway. The impact of the acquisition at the end of the decade is almost non-existent, as Microsoft's mobile efforts shift to Android, just like Nokia's.
February 2014: Nadella named Microsoft CEO
When Microsoft announced that Steve Ballmer would be stepping down as CEO, speculation about who would replace him ran wild. That person ended up being Satya Nadella, who has since turned Microsoft around in a major way, for the better. Ever since Satya Nadella took charge, Microsoft stocks have rocketed sky-high and are the strongest they have ever been.
Satya Nadella has been able to achieve this by refocusing on Microsoft's strengths, rather than chasing markets that it realistically will never be able to catch up in. Satya Nadella put more emphasis on the cloud, Azure, and enterprise-grade software and services, and put many consumer-facing ventures on the back burner. He stopped projects that were unsuccessful, such as Windows Phone, Groove Music, and Microsoft Band, and instead focused on areas in which Microsoft could succeed, like with Microsoft Teams and Office 365.
All of these changes have been a huge positive for Microsoft. Stockholders can't get enough of Microsoft right now, and that's mostly thanks to the changes Satya Nadella brought in when he became CEO. Focusing more on the enterprise and less on consumers has proven to be nothing but successful for the company, which means this trend is likely to continue for years to come. Satya Nadella has also improved Microsoft's reputation in several key areas, including the open-source community, Linux community, and embracing competitor platforms such as iOS and Android.
January 2015: Microsoft reveals HoloLens
Few hardware announcements shock the world as much as HoloLens did in 2015. Revealed during the Windows 10: The next chapter event in New York City, the creator of HoloLens Alex Kipman took the stage and blew everyone away. Sure, the world had heard of holographic computing, and there was talk someday it could happen. On that winter Wednesday, Microsoft astounded the audience by not only demoing a wearable holographic computer but announced it was going on sale in early 2016. This thing wasn't a concept. It was real.
TIME Magazine even named HoloLens gadget of the year.
In hindsight, Microsoft wasn't too clear on the objective of HoloLens – gaming, work, just for fun? But that was something it would figure out along the way. Eventually, HoloLens became a tool for developers, and soon major companies were trialing potential use cases for work environments. While consumers were wondering if one would ever go on sale, Microsoft was putting HoloLens to work, eventually nailing military contracts worth hundreds of millions.
Four years later, Microsoft announced HoloLens 2. It then went on sale just nine months later. It's a dramatic shift in comfort, features, and usability, including letting companies custom design the headset for various jobs.
While the mainstream angle for HoloLens is still being kicked down the road, so far, Microsoft has handled HoloLens skillfully by avoiding the finicky consumer market. It's clear that Microsoft is taking its time and moving cautiously towards a holographic future. Microsoft now has the most advanced wearable PC in the world running Windows 10, and this effort sets the groundwork for the next decade, where holographic computing could be something you wear every day (at least at work).
July 2015: Microsoft launches Windows 10
Microsoft's Windows 8 was met by a tsunami of complaints from customers and the media. Microsoft chose to include a tablet-friendly interface and forced it on the desktop, which didn't go down too well. It was a shame since the underlying OS was pretty good. With the lackluster adoption rate for Windows 8 and complaints from the community, Microsoft had to knock it out of the park with Windows 10. And it did.
Windows 10 took the traditional (and familiar) desktop environment, turned it up to 11 and improved performance across the board. This version of Windows was a huge boon for Microsoft's OS against the competition, allowing both desktop and notebook PCs to boot in a matter of seconds consistently, handle even more demanding PC games without issue, and offer a vastly more efficient user experience as a whole.
Fast-forward to the latest rollout of updates for Windows 10, and you've got an incredibly stable platform for creators, gamers, general computing, and everyone in between.
September 2017: Phil Spencer leads Xbox One
Phil Spencer had previously led Microsoft's internal games effort, albeit in a hamstrung fashion. The disastrous positioning of the original Xbox One in 2013 torpedoed the brand at the worst possible time, as the gaming industry moved increasingly towards digital licenses with users "locked in" to a platform. The boost gave Sony a massive head start, and Xbox has been fighting an uphill battle to regain ground ever since.
With the previously leadership ousted, Spencer not only took the reins of Xbox but was promoted to the Senior Leadership Team, putting gaming at the heart of Microsoft's wider operation for the very first time. As a result, a flood of investment hit Xbox, leading to the largest studio portfolio in the division's history, alongside highly potent initiatives in game streaming with Project XCloud and pioneering industrial engineering on the hardware side.
Xbox still has a hill to climb, but the brand has never been in a better shape. That all started with Spencer's, and thus Xbox's, ascension to a senior leadership role in Redmond.
October 2017: Arrow Launcher becomes Microsoft Launcher
Microsoft Launcher isn't the most powerful or popular app Microsoft makes for Android, but it truly shows the monumental shift that Microsoft made in regards to mobile. After the decline and death of Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile, Microsoft reestablished itself in mobile phones through its vast library of apps on Android and iOS.
Microsoft Launcher came out of the Microsoft Garage and quickly gained integration with other services like Microsoft To Do, Office 365, and Cortana. It shows glimpses into Microsoft's vision for Android. In fact, the same team that makes Microsoft Launcher will make the launcher for the Surface Duo, Microsoft's first Android phone.
Over the last decade, Microsoft moved from a first-party mobile OS to fully embracing Android and iOS. Officially moving Arrow Launcher out of the Microsoft Garage and converting it to Microsoft Launcher illustrates that switch. Now, you can run an Android phone with Office 365, Microsoft Launcher, Microsoft Edge, Your Phone, xCloud, Remote Desktop, SwiftKey, and many other Microsoft services.
October 2017: Microsoft says Windows Phone is dead
Windows Phone was a platform that many loved, but in 2017, it had become clear that Microsoft was no longer interested in pursuing its own mobile platform. In October 2017, Microsoft's Joe Belfiore confirmed on Twitter that development on Windows 10 Mobile was winding down, and that the company was now focusing on Android and iOS as the premiere place for Microsoft software and services on devices that fit in your pocket.
This marked the beginning of the end for Windows Phone, as Microsoft stopped releasing new features and hardware for the platform. At the time, Microsoft was hoping to reenter the mobile market with a foldable phone powered by Windows Core OS, but that plan eventually fizzled out in favor of running Android on it instead. This product ultimately became the upcoming Surface Duo.
October 2018: The birth of Project xCloud
Project xCloud is Microsoft's game streaming service that's available in public preview at the moment. You can play around 50 games for free and the company says that the service will also support your existing purchases and Xbox Game Pass in 2020. Being able to play your games wherever you are, without the need for a console, is the future of gaming, and Microsoft wants to reach as many gamers as possible.
In many parts of the world, gaming consoles aren't common but smartphones are. The ability to simply download a small app, log in to your Microsoft Account, and start playing a "AAA" blockbuster hasn't been possible before. That's changing and with xCloud, there are no downloads, no patches, it just works.
While competitors like Google Stadia also exist, Microsoft's bandwidth requirements are the lowest at the moment. You can even use your phone's data plan to play games like Gears 5 and Sea of Thieves. This is what sets the service apart, and reaching as many players as possible is the company's vision for the future of gaming.
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