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Speaking Truth: Why Microsoft’s New CEO Made His Debut In San Francisco

Satya Nadella, five weeks into his new job as Microsoft’s CEO, wants to wipe the slate clean. Or, at least, convince you that he can.

Even though he’s a 22-year veteran of the software company, the view from the top is different, Nadella said Thursday morning at an event in San Francisco. Microsoft unveiled new cloud and mobile products, most notably a version of Microsoft Office for Apple’s iPad.

“You see things from very fresh eyes, from a fresh perspective—you relearn the place,” said Nadella.

And it makes a big statement that he said this in technology’s new heartland, rather than summoning journalists and analysts to Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash.

Mobile And The Cloud

One key point Nadella is making within Microsoft is that cloud and mobile aren’t two separate things—they’re one and the same. Mobile devices are useless pieces of plastic and metal without cloud-delivered software and services to run. And the cloud is just code lying still on a server in a data center without devices to breathe life into.

Microsoft has a lot to prove in the cloud and mobile, where it has been slow to bring its core Office suite online and has struggled to gain market share in mobile devices. So under Nadella, it’s pushing a new yet old strategy: making great software for any device.

It’s new, because Microsoft has focused its efforts on selling a unified offering of operating system and applications, all from one company. That worked well up until the end of the last decade, when the rise of smartphones and tablets eroded its virtual lock on the market of computing devices.

It’s old, because Microsoft was famous for making applications before it was known for operating systems. Microsoft Word for Mac came four years before Word for Windows, for example.

So Microsoft’s old-but-new business of making applications for a wide range of operating systems is one way the company will find its way forward.

Managing The Cloud

The other way Microsoft will assert its relevance is by catering to information-technology professionals, who are increasingly allowing—or tolerating—the use of just about any device employees bring into the workplace. At the same time, they’re still on the hook for keeping business data and documents secure and in the right hands.

Julia White, a Microsoft general manager in the Office division, showed a number of management and configuration tools that work to manage Android and IOS devices as well as ones running Windows. One linchpin is Azure Active Directory, a cloud-based login and identity service.

Nadella has talked up Azure Active Directory before, and the identity service could play a key part in Microsoft’s attempts to appeal to IT professionals and app developers alike.

Beyond the wonky details of Azure Active Directory, it’s important as a symbol inside and outside Microsoft: This is how the company can play on its historic strength selling to large organizations and take it, in a meaningful way to a cloud-and-mobile future. White called it “the Facebook for enterprise”—in the sense that Facebook has become a near-universal login for consumer apps, Microsoft has the opportunity to build the same thing.

Keeping Microsoft Real

In Sanskrit, “satya” is a concept that translates to “absolute truth” or “reality.” True to his name, that’s what Microsoft’s new CEO seems to be delivering. No blather about how amazing Microsoft Surface is, no false sanguinity about Windows Phone’s anemic market share. He even dissed the historic tendency for his company to stick to an “all-on-Microsoft” strategy—limiting Office to devices running Windows, for example.

At the same time, he acknowledges Microsoft’s existing culture.

“We don’t like to leave things unfinished,” Nadella said. That means wanting to build systems for work and for play—the Microsoftian tendency to overreach which may have played a factor in Office for iPad’s slow arrival.

“We are absolutely committed to making our applications run what most people refer to as ‘cross-platform’ great,” he said. “What motivates us is the reality of our customers.”

For a company which has been too long stuck in the fog of Redmond, it’s a remarkable turnaround. 

Image by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite

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