From Windows to the Cloud

I’m somewhat shell-shocked to read Satya Nadella’s email to Microsoft employees this morning on the organizational changes taking place there.

As someone who worked at Microsoft for seventeen years, it is incredible to see Windows demoted to a product without a seat at the highest table (the most senior person with Windows in their job title is ‘merely’ a Corporate Vice President, last I checked, and is not part of the Senior Leadership Team). The name “Microsoft” (a portmanteau of microcomputer + software) has no relevance to the company’s mission any longer, just as IBM outgrew the expansion of their name. Microsoft has become “Cloudserv”— a company that focuses on back-end cloud services and for whom Windows is astonishingly a non-core business.

Throughout the majority of my time at Microsoft, Windows was the company’s centerpiece, not just in terms of being the largest revenue contributor, but even more so, the gravitational force that influenced every strategic decision. The retirement of Silverlight and the at-best equivocal support for .NET on the client was driven by the desire for Windows to ‘own’ the platform. Windows’ dominance was also evidenced in the company’s historical disinterest in bringing server products to other platforms and the tepid releases of Office for Mac, and the recent shift in strategy on those fronts was already evidence of that waning influence.

Satya’s mail unsurprisingly underplays how far Windows is being scattered to the four winds. It seems that Joe Belfiore will continue to lead the Windows experience team (essentially, the user space), with the old core OS division (the kernel team) moving under Azure. (Again, hard to overstate the significance of that — the Windows kernel is now an implementation detail under a team that famously “loves Linux”). The HoloLens team also seems to move under Azure, which may be its death knell after a stuttering start — I can’t imagine that this is seen as core to the cloud business.

Cortana is unmentioned in the email, although one assumes that it is divided across product units with the underlying platform under the AI Cognitive Services team and the Windows experience team being responsible for how it is exposed. This is strikingly different to how Amazon are treating Alexa, with thousands of people having been hired to that group over the last couple of years, including a good chunk of Microsoft’s old evangelism team if my LinkedIn network is anything to go by.

Partner relationships are now no longer under Windows either — another major shift — although it’s interesting that Satya’s mail here focuses in on the hardware community without any mention of the ISVs on which Windows’ success has been built.

For client developers, the relevance of UWP must be even more questionable. With the Windows store increasingly focused on non-app products (books, videos, music) and now being moved under Azure, further shake-ups there can be expected. And XAML Standard, touted in the keynotes of last year’s Build as the strategy through which Microsoft would unify various incompatible dialects and UI technologies such as Xamarin, WPF and UWP, has clearly fallen victim to politics, with the repo seeming to be dead and its goals having been drastically watered down.

And yet… Microsoft has been reborn many times. When I first joined the company in 2000, they were derided in the enterprise as being a ‘consumer’ company, with no understanding of the unique challenges of mission-critical systems: scalability, security, reliability. Nobody would accuse Microsoft of being unsuited to the enterprise today. The recent shift to the cloud has proven immensely profitable, with Microsoft stock growing to levels that seemed unfathomable just a few years ago. The shift away from the client and Windows is clearly working as a business strategy — but it’s a seismic shift for the company and its culture. If you’re an ecosystem partner of Microsoft, the lesson is clear — in the same way as Windows is no longer a core business, unless you’re focused on the cloud, you’re not a strategic partner.

Will be interesting to see this all play out. While the Microsoft I first loved is no more, it’s clear the company still has a bright future ahead of it — just in a different arena.

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