Microsoft finds its leader -- now good luck on finding a vision

New CEO Satya Nadella must articulate, execute an innovative vision for Microsoft or risk following the path of Tim Cook

Microsoft this week finally anointed a new CEO -- but now the real search begins: finding a vision that will get the Redmond giant moving forward and dispel its image as a company stuck in the past, unable to innovate. To paraphrase royalists everywhere, "The search is over, long live the search!"

Steve Ballmer failed to grasp the vital importance of "the vision thing," as George H.W. Bush famously and dismissively called it. "Microsoft suffers from a lack of vision, one of the most important things a new CEO can do, and what a company is all about. Ballmer struggled with that for a number of years," said Jim Gregory, CEO of consultancy CoreBrand.

While everyone agrees that new CEO Satya Nadella needs to sort out the Windows 8 debacle, fix Microsoft's mobile strategy, and woo developers, his most immediate challenge is to articulate a newfound sense of direction for Microsoft. Unless he's seen as quickly taking charge and steering an innovative course, Nadella risks going down the path of another nice guy running a tech giant without a publicly discernible vision: Tim Cook.

Certainly, Apple's products are still the envy of the world and the company is hugely profitable, but it's been three years since Apple introduced a groundbreaking product. And many are quick to blame Cook for "dismantling Apple's reputation for innovation." Steve Jobs's more affable/less intimidating replacement is not the role model that Nadella -- viewed as more collaborative/less abrasive than Steve Ballmer -- should necessarily emulate.

Nadella is widely respected within the industry, praised for his grasp of the technical side of Microsoft and liked by developers, but it is too early to discern whether he has a clear vision for the company. First indications, from his letter to Microsoft employees, are that he is not inclined to rock the boat -- which perhaps explains the tepid investor reaction to the choice of Nadella, rather than an outsider who might have provided a needed shakeup.

Others may argue that what Microsoft really needs now is a leader willing to kill some sacred cows. Nadella might be that leader. Bill Hilf, former manager of Windows Azure and currently VP of HP's cloud organization, told Wired that "Nadella deeply understands the way modern online services are built" and was instrumental "not only in shifting Microsoft towards the new, more rapid way of building online services, but in moving the group to a new licensing model that encouraged the sales staff to sell online services as well as traditional software." Perhaps even more important, his group embraced technologies -- like Linux -- that Ballmer had long deemed the enemy.

Nadella's predecessor was unwilling or unable to break free of the past. "A computer on every desk and in every home" was the vision that carried Microsoft for 25 years, but as Daring Fireball pointed out:

Once that goal was achieved, I don't think [Microsoft] knew where to go. They were like the dog that caught the car. What they missed was the next step from every desk and home: a computer in every pocket. It's worse than that, though. ... Steve Ballmer didn't even seem to realize it. That's what's so damning about that video of him laughing at the original iPhone.

... No company today has reach or influence anything like what Microsoft had during the golden era of the PC. Not Apple, not Google, and not Microsoft itself. I don't think Ballmer ever came to grips with that. Ballmer's view of the company solidified when it dominated the entire industry, and he never adjusted.

It will be Nadella's task not only to recognize the next new thing but to execute on it swiftly. Two years ago, Microsoft Research developed a contact lens equipped with a chip that could measure the blood sugar level of tears, but Google is expected to actually deliver a "smart contact lens." Ditto for the smart house -- Gates spent more than $100 million building his tech-laden mansion, but look to Google to make good on the highly hyped Internet of things. As Businessweek noted, "In many ways, Google has become the company Microsoft always hoped to be."

Now, as the adage goes, only time will tell if Nadella is capable of seeing and seizing opportunities, and turning Microsoft into an industry innovator. Let the new search begin.

This article, "Microsoft finds its leader -- now good luck on finding a vision," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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