Microsoft is back from years in the woods, fearless and full of ambition

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Though the company's bold "all-in" attitude into these areas is derivative of what I'm referring to, they're not the foundation of this transformation. Simply put, Microsoft is different because it has become a firm without fear.

Chris Capossela, Microsoft's Chief Marketing Officer, said it this way during the December 23, 2015, episode of Windows Weekly:

"…the fear is really gone, and the ambition is really back. Now it's up to us to execute. But this notion of being fearful, cautious...ambition inside the walls of the company is just crazy high. Now we have to execute. But it's just a better place to be in than a culture that's kind of fearful and very cautious about everything. Let's go execute in 2016."

The candid discussion with Microsoft's amicable marketing head revealed a company that overcame fear.

Dare to be different

Lumia 950 and Surface

Lumia 950 and Surface (Image credit: Windows Central)

I'm a superhero fan. Marvel's Daredevil, the man without fear, is blind lawyer Matt Murdock by day and a fearless crime fighter by night. He's gifted with a "radar" sense akin to the echolocation employed by bats that allow him to perceive and act upon opportunities within his environment before those with ordinary sight see them. Combined with a strategic mind, calculating fighting style and character-defining courage he has a distinct edge over rivals. Combatants are overcome by Daredevil's offensive and defensive moves that take advantage of his ability to "see" more than what others perceive. An ability to see more than your rivals is a powerful asset indeed.

Microsoft's bold ventures into areas that rivals dared not tread have arguably positioned the company beyond the curve. Deliberate steps into the cloud, mixed reality, a unified platform, a freemium model for Office, category-defining hybrid hardware and expensive gaming accessories are signs of a company that's not afraid of what lies beyond the bend. This ambition is likely due to an acute sense of what the future holds. Yes, like Daredevil, Redmond's offensive and defensive moves are indicative of the company taking advantage of its ability to see what others have yet to perceive.

Business unusual

Microsoft's fearless and proactive modus operandi has not always been the way Redmond has done business. We need only venture briefly down memory lane, before the "One Microsoft" company reorg to get a glimpse of the Microsoft that once was.

Microsoft was a single firm with many independently operating divisions. The cohesive unity necessary for genuine innovation - conception, engineering, and execution - was absent. This disunity can be attributed to the confluence of many factors. One factor, no doubt, being rooted in the company's laser focus, and in hindsight, tunnel vision, on Microsoft's core asset - Windows. The company's primary focus in years past was making Windows comprehensive and ubiquitous.

This discussion may sound like today's strategy. However, Microsoft's original Windows strategy did not benefit from a deliberate harmonizing of the company's other divisions. Microsoft didn't capitalize on the host of engineering assets at its disposal to promote a single mission.

Steve Ballmer in 2007

Steve Ballmer in 2007 (Image credit: Microsoft)

Steve Ballmer articulated it this way in a July 11, 2013, memo:

Improving our performance has three big dimensions: focusing the whole company on a single strategy, improving our capability in all disciplines and engineering/technology areas, and working together with more collaboration and agility around our common goals.

Yes, many of the bold shifts manifesting under Satya Nadella's still-young reign began during Ballmer's watch.

Reasons for fear

Another reality that was present during Ballmer's reign was the impact of the United States government's antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft. This years-long battle had lasting effects on the way Microsoft conducted business even after Ballmer facilitated a settlement.

Microsoft asserted that the company's genuine attempts at innovation were the target of rivals.

One of the issues, you may recall, was Microsoft's bundling of Internet Explorer with its ubiquitous Window OS. This integration was viewed by competitors, such as Netscape, as an unfair abuse of Microsoft's monopoly position. In its defense, Microsoft asserted that the company's genuine attempts at innovation were the target of rivals.

If true, Microsoft's apparent lack of cohesion, follow-through, and ambition in years past may be the result of the company's cautious attempts not to repeat behavior that placed them in the cross-hairs of the Department of Justice.

Moreover, one can imagine that team meetings during and after those court proceedings were likely venues for leadership to stress far-reaching protocols to ensure that every "i" was dotted, and every "t" crossed.

At the turn of the century, Microsoft had endured a very public battle with the US government, rival companies, and nearly half of the states in the union, followed by years of court-ordered scrutiny into its business practices. One judge had even ordered a break-up of the company though this was overturned on appeal. This is scary stuff. Like the oppressive environment of his home, the New York City neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen shaped Daredevil's hardened character, this court battle was a culture-defining burden for Microsoft.

The court battle was a culture-defining burden for Microsoft.

Consequently, company-wide measures that were implemented to ensure compliance with the courts and safety from such legal troubles in the future very likely, subtly, and without intent, evolved to become the company's culture. A culture of fear, trepidation and muted ambition. A culture where Redmond was afraid to innovate truly; to bring ambitious products from conception to execution.

Man without fear

One would be hard pressed to categorize Satya Nadella as a fearful man. His distinct character, poise and ambition are the antithesis to that of a man ruled by fear. That said, we must acknowledge that many of the projects that we see coming to fruition during Nadella's brief tenure had to have been initiated while Ballmer led the company. Nothing in tech happens overnight.

What we can say regarding Nadella is that his bold ambition aligns decisions and projects he has inherited with his vision, boundless optimism and a strong charge into the future. A future of opportunities that he perceives, clearly articulates and like our blind hero, fearlessly acts upon before others know they're there. We're on the move.

Nadella fearlessly acts on opportunities before others know they're there. We're on the move.

Who can forget Nadella's July 2014 vision-setting Bold Ambition and Core{.nofollow} email? In that communication, Nadella spoke of mobility of experiences. In a device-centric world greatly influenced by the iPhone and a myriad assortment of Android smartphones, Nadella's prioritizing of a cohesive user experience across the devices through which those experiences occur may have appeared to some as a "sour grapes". Due to Microsoft's small representation in the smartphone arena, Nadella's "device-less" focus may have seemed like an attempt to downplay hardware.

However, the industry's continued evolution toward cloud-based experiences with our devices playing the role of transient access points to those experiences over the past year has begun to bear out the courageous vision portrayed by Nadella.

Hard way to go

This cloud-first, mobile-first strategy in no way precludes the importance of Microsoft's hardware vision. Nadella clearly{.nofollow} conveys hardware's vital role in Microsoft's ecosystem:

Our cloud OS infrastructure, device OS and first-party hardware will all build around this core focus and enable broad ecosystems.

Apparently, Microsoft's hardware vision has taken shape around it's 'mobility of experiences' core. The category-defining Surface and Surface Book are ambitious ventures into uncharted space with a deliberate goal of driving the rest of the industry in that same direction. Microsoft is no longer afraid.

In a world where declining sales of traditional PCs are touted as a prelude to the death of the personal computer, Microsoft instead sees an evolution of the category. The companies keen sense of an industry they have served for 40 years, combined with the intuitive insights of a courageous leader positioned Redmond to see opportunities others in the industry missed. Form-shifting devices were on Redmond's radar.

The daring context-conforming hardware of the Surface/Book and Continuum-enhanced Lumia's (and pending Surface "spiritual equivalent" "phone") set the tone for the type of devices that Microsoft envisions will help the firm facilitate its vision to empower the dual user. For Microsoft, the user, not the device, is the hub.

Imitation, they say, is the highest form of flattery. Apple's iPad Pro and Google's Pixel C are evidence that rivals now see what Microsoft saw when they launched the Surface in 2012. However, it is the power of the Universal Windows Platform and flexibility of Continuum that set Microsoft's solution apart.

Windows on the world

With Windows 10, Microsoft has boldly taken the OS where no other OS has gone before. Redmond has made Windows the foundation of a unified form-agnostic platform as well as an evolving service. These bold steps are not the mark of a company living under the shadow of its past. As Daredevil's character builds a career as a hero upon the shady foundation of his father's past, Nadella too sees opportunity in failure. Nadella's philosophy of building successes upon failures is helping to propel the company "full-throttle" into the future. With over 200 million installs of Windows since its July release Microsoft's final OS seems to be a success.

It's interesting to note how Microsoft unabashedly engineered deep integration of its products into Windows 10. Cortana is not just a handy assistant it's Microsoft's way of making Bing the default search engine for hundreds of millions of Windows users. Microsoft's engineering of products-within-products in Windows 10 such as Cortana within Edge, the more discoverable "Start-Menu-positioned" Windows Store with promoted apps, and other moves indicate that Microsoft is no longer walking on eggshells. As a matter of fact, Redmond is walking on air.

Offering Office

If someone had mentioned ten years ago that Microsoft Office would be offered for free and on platforms other than Windows, that person would have been laughed to scorn. Microsoft has taken one of its most lucrative businesses and done just that. 200 million iOS and Android users have downloaded free versions of Office. The freemium model is a simple concept: if consumers like the free product, they may be willing to purchase a more feature-rich version.

Additionally, the company's limited-time offer of Office 365 with the purchase of a new Windows computer is also lucrative for the enterprise as they establish their software as a service paradigm. For example, my wife gave me an HP Stream 7 last Christmas, which included a year's subscription to Office 365. That subscription expired this year. To use Office for another year I had to pay $70 since I didn't have an ongoing subscription. This routine will likely become an annual ritual for myself and hundreds of millions of others for years to come. This shift to a subscription model after years of selling software to users was a bold move that works synergistically with Microsoft's cloud-first vision.

Beyond the horizon

Capossela reiterated Microsoft's play for the cloud during his Windows Weekly discussion. Redmond's subscription-based enterprise cloud is second only to Amazon's. Capossela shared how Google has the capacity for a similar play but with over 90% of its revenue coming from ads it just does not fit the company's model. Consequently, Microsoft and Amazon are the two top cloud services for business. Redmond is aggressively squaring off with Amazon for the top position.

As the "man without fear" stands against a vast array of villains confident of his ability to succeed, Redmond confidently stands toe-to-toe against rivals in diverse sectors like business cloud and console gaming. After Nadella had taken the helm, there were concerns that he might capitulate to the will of some investors and cut the Xbox division. Microsoft's long-term vision, however, included Xbox as part of the Windows ecosystem. Boasting Windows 10, the Xbox and PCs are core to gaming in Microsoft's ecosystem. And gaming, of course, is core to Microsoft's vision of serving the dual user. Actually 2015 was the biggest year in Xbox history.

Gaming is so important to so many of Microsoft's customers that a breakout Microsoft product in 2015 was the $150 Elite Controller, per Capossela. Who would have thought?

HoloLens and Microsoft Windows logo

HoloLens and Microsoft Windows logo (Image credit: Windows Central)

Speaking of breakout products HoloLens, Microsoft's ambitious mixed-reality wearable computer, is Time's 2015 Gadget of the Year. For a product that is still in development, has yet to be released and exists in very limited quantities, the industry has recognized the scope of Microsoft's ambition with this device. As a product that reimagines computing while pulling all of our productivity, leisure and communication tools seamlessly into this new mixed-reality paradigm, Microsoft has seen and is meticulously executing on the future of computing.

Like Daredevil, Microsoft seems to perceive more than the obvious. The companies smart investment in areas that stretch the imagination, create new categories and pushes the industry in new directions reveal an ambition and courage that was absent in years past. As we move into 2016, Microsoft is a company without fear, and that's just marvelous.

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!

  • Happy New Year folks! Thanks for reading and for all of your support last year. As we and Microsoft go into 2016 we anticipate great things! Capossela's insightful comment that the fear is gone from Microsoft and his admission that ambition is back is certainly a concession that Microsoft was operating under some very limiting constraints over the years. Fear is crippling. External forces are inhibiting. Combined with internal constraints derived from fear, where engineers, leaders and creative minds are bound by some foreboding feeling of some negative consequence to actions, the results can be devastating. But as we move into 2016, in Capossela's words the fear is gone! Where will Microsoft's ambition take us? LET's TALK!
  • Epic post man. Well done
  • @Double Thanks man glad you liked it! :-)
  • One thing...being blind does not make you more of a superhero with sonar (not radar). Also, I hate the freemium model. I like buying something and being able to use it forever, or until it needs an upgrade. That may be 6 years for a office, since not enough changes each year. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Agree. I hate subscriptions and the subscription model. Why rent when you can own?   Additionally, I think this article gives Satya Nadella way too much credit.  Most of the successes Microsoft is seeing now were started under Ballmer and Nadella is getting the credit.  Maybe Nadella's style is helping the company... but most of the substance was started under Ballmer.   My biggest pet peeve with Nadella is his utter neglect of Windows Phone/Lumia.  All the momentum it had under Ballmer is lost.  Yes, the advances were incremental... but at least they were in an upward trajectory.  Windows Phone has done nothing but collapse under Nadella.  I resent him for that.  A lot of us invested a lot of money and heart into Windows Phone... and Nadella just doesn't seem to care.
  • Yeah I dont get how people can be live that Ghandi is the reason why MS is as it is now. Most uf nit alle of the fruit we see today was planted during Crazy Baller reign. Credit were it is due people. And yeah I like how MS is portrayed as blind that is spot on especially true for their marketing. MS the most useless hero of all time... Apple can be Electra, beautiful but equally as useless.
  • Not to be confrontational, but I hope the two of you read the article. Jason clearly states the following..."Yes, many of the bold shifts manifesting under Satya Nadella's still-young reign began during Ballmer's watch." Jason repeats later in his article..."That said, we must acknowledge that many of the projects that we see coming to fruition during Nadella's brief tenure had to have been initiated while Ballmer led the company. Nothing in tech happens overnight." I think it is pretty clear that he is not giving all the credit to Nadella.
  • Backdated articles?
  • Thanks Jason, very good article. I love the idea of looking to the future and can't wait to see what's next.
  • Great review! Greetings from Portugal
  • I don't see it; it doesn't make sense to me. Windows Phone 7 Series and Windows 8 were born out of fearlessness. Windows 10 is a fearful retreat. Xbox One launched fearlessly, then took a fearful retreat. Everything about their execution nowadays is fearful hedging of bets. The only way I could call them fearless is to say that their current offerings show an overconfidence in their product (A lot of people are moving to Windows 10 so it must be great!). They need to be more afraid that when they reboot products and remove features, or remove things like OneDrive benefits, that there will be revolt.      
  • Another thing. I love long-form, analytical articles. I like to exercise my vocabulary and use as many words as are needed to explore some intellectual concept. So I do salute you for being the one who attempts to provide those for this site. But even your comment here shows off why I can never finish your articles. You need to tighten up your writing, and I say that with love.
    You ramble, you over-apply analogies, you jump between thoughts without tying them together, and basically you just take way too long to provide punches while taking too many paragraphs to express the idea. tl:dr; and I love to read.
  • Thanks Jason for the article. Always enjoy reading your articles and looking forward for more to come.
  • Here we go.
  • Another great article from Jason
  • Too long. But if it's anything like previous articles by Jason it's just another cheerleader piece. I swear he's either there ultimate fanboy or paid by Microsoft.
  • Agree, its getting a bit ridiculous now. Seems to pop one out every now and then to rally the troops but they never seem to be based in reality, just full of what if's and maybe's. Too much pie in the sky stuff, outside the echo chamber that is Windows Central Microsoft doesnt really matter as much as people want to believe.
  • @theefman @Jonnie I welcome you both to read the content in full. :-) I'm sure you both have quality contributions that can be offered that whether, for or against, what I present would have a respectable and substantial foundation when offered within the context of having read the piece that you have given your time to comment on. I by no means expect you to agree with everything I present, nor do I posit to see the entire picture. Perhaps after you read what I present you can add what I may have missed or offer an articulate rebuttal. But answering a matter before hearing it, well that doesn't give you the opportunity to share your insights at all. You don't do yourselves any justice. :-). It simply positions you within a very limiting scope where the only manifestation of what you have to offer is criticism. And well, I just don't believe that. You're regulars on a tech site focused on articulating information via the written word. I believe you have far more to offer. :-)
  • I like the articles, it's interesting to read about the changes MS has gone through structrually and curlturally and how these are deeply connected with the ethos behind it's products and activities. Year's ago I was obsessed with the new and exciting innovations *cough* that apple cam out with and now I'm an MS fan but I still appreciate the the products that other companies bring and it's good to have choice but not choice of the same things (if they call copied each other) but choice of things that are different because people are different and have differnet needs and preferences and I prefer MS (for as long as it suits me :)
  • What made you change? I want the recipe to apply it to many of my friends!
  • I'm really attracted to where the innovation is, years ago Apple were leading this, bring out amazing high qulaity products with a  great experience, not much has chnged though since the launch of the iPhone, iPad & iTunes but they still make great products with a great experience (if very expensive). Micorsoft has been innovatrive all along, before OneDrive there was Mesh (2007) and before W10 there was WP7 which is where it all began. They've become a kinder & more innovative company it seems that care more about things from the user's point of view which is good for the user interms of what we have choice of but also for MS as it means extra income. Like Jason says, it's been there all along but now it's starting to show. While I appreciate Google, Apple and MS each have their own great products, of them all I think MS is the best positioned in providing an all round package (OS, Office, Ovedrive, UWA, Devices) but unlike the others, I'm not tied in, I could get an Apple phone tomorrow and have all my MS stuff on it with out any issues.
  • Learn to write succinctly, Ward. Preferably, both articles and replies. Droning on is a sign of poor writing discipline. ;-)
  • @Normanton Thanks for the feedback.;-)
  • Hard to disagree with that assessment.
  • Yup, where I saw the title, I just clicked on it to confirm it was from him, lol
  • LOL     You didn't even read it?   This ain't twitter. :) 
  • It's exactly as previous articles.
  • It's an attempt to lift up the spirits of Windows fans. Keep it up Jason! In a world where bashing the device you claim to support has before a new fashion, it's nice to know that there are still guys like you.
  • Hey if Android Central is writing year-end love letters to the Nexus 6P, I'd say this is pretty tame and a lot more objective.
  • To be fair nothing recently released by Microsoft deserves a end of the year love letter. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Another day, another article to strengthen the faith of the faithful. Nutella watch over you, brethren.
  • Where have you been lately Jason?   (Looooong Holiday?  lol ) I'm putting this article in my Microsoft Edge Reading List so I can enjoy it with a Shot of Espresso when I get home from the office. (In other words, I'm not wasting this read while multitasking on the clock)
  • @snakebitten Hey, man. Thanks. Hope you enjoy it. Glad you want to give it your undivided attention. :-) Sorry to be MIA. I got a few pieces coming down the pipe. Hiatus is over. :-)
  • Keep up the great EDITORIAL work!!! And please dont capitulate to those here who bemoan the "long reads".  Not everyone lives in the short attention span, 120 character sound bite culture.  Well done sir, I look forward to your continued efforts.
  • Microsoft > Everything Else
  • Apart from iPhone's
  • Microsoft>Apple :D
  • Keep up the good work Microsoft.
  • I like this Microsoft
  • I'm sorry, but I just don't see it.  I have nothing but disdain for Satya Nadella and most of his management team.  They took operating systems that I felt were going in great, fresh directions and then went backward, all the while pretending to be advancing the operating system.  I had no problem moving away from the Windows 7 and older style to the new...but apparently most people were scared to death of that.  Now the operating system has turned into something I loathe almost as much as Android and iOS.  As far as I'm concerned they did all this EXACTLY out of fear, NOT ambition.  Now that Microsoft has focused on doing things first and better on competing platforms, they've removed any substantive reason to stay on their platform at all.  And hardware?  The Surface line of tablets are the only thing worthwhile.  They took what Nokia excelled at and ruined it.  I see no improvement coming because I see no change in their vision or attitude.
  • I agree. Windows10 is a pile of crap meant to mine data. The years and years of revisions and fine tuning of settings, integrations, and functionality were all flushed down the toilet. Why? Because apple and google ran ad campaigns that even microsoft bought into. Instead of polishing their image, Microsoft threw in the towel and **** out Windows Phone and Windows 10. Nothing is ever complete on these platforms. They are both half baked solutions with 10 sides of promises- which never amount to anything.
  • Windows 10 is going to rule the corporate PC landscape between Q2 and Q4 of 2016 in most Fortune 500 companies. I work in a big bank, and my laptop with Windows 7 will migrate to Windows 10, so big enterprises are skipping Windows 8 completely.  If something Microsoft should be proud of is Windows 10, even Samsung is now choosing this OS on their Galaxy products, which makes all of us think that they care more about customer satisfaction than Google loyality with Android.  Pretty sure that if Microsoft makes a comeback of Project Astoria later in 2016, we might see a Samsung Galaxy S8 phone with Windows 10 Mobile for 2017.  Just my 2 cents.
  • I agree that Windows 10 has potential... but the "one OS to rule them all" was really Ballmer's idea.  This isn't Nadella's idea.
  • Are you sure of that? Is it not possible that is was Nadella that gave Balmer that ida?
  • I think the astoria project being placed on hold is more to do with the latest google move. GPLing its java to avoid paying oracle more money when it loses it court case. Google were idiots here they should have just licensed it like everyone else. Though I think they will stiil screw with it by keeping private code which they are not allowed to do under the GPL. Or they are just playing games to avoid court restrictions on use and their capacity to distribute.... then I dont know that having android apps on WP is necessarily a good idea long term. honestly I think they will "F" it up by too pig headed(google).  
  • "Pretty sure that if Microsoft makes a comeback of Project Astoria later in 2016, we might see a Samsung Galaxy S8 phone with Windows 10 Mobile for 2017. "   Again: why would anyone buy a Windows Phone to run Android apps in? Better to just buy an Android altogether and get the added benefits of Google Play Services. Forget it, Gabriel. There will be no S8 with Windows 10 Mobile in 2017. If there's even a Windows 10 Mobile in 2017 you should already be very happy.
  • Yup . Definitely. I mean its a service and hopefully someday this year win 10 mobile is finished and ready to actual release and doesn't need polish to hide things. If that's not happening till june I will definitely need to find a new 6" phone. Or downgrade to 8.1 again.
  • I agree with a lot of this. I am resentful of Satya Nadella as well because he has essentially destroyed Windows Phone/Lumia.  The whole thing has collapsed underneath him.  If mobile is so important... and if Windows Phone is collapsing... why is Nadella getting accolades?  It makes no sense.  How can you be "Mobile First" if your mobile platform was under 5%... and falling (now below 2%)?  Where exactly is the success?!? Maybe everything can be resurrected by a Surface Phone... but, again, the Surface-thing was started under Ballmer, not Nadella.  Nadella is just taking the credit.  And even if the Surface Phone does succeed, it will be due to the brilliance of Panos Panay... not Nadella (who doesn't even seem committed to it yet).