Microsoft is looking a lot like Apple — and Nadella like Jobs

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is showing the same kind of leadership that Steve Jobs used to rescue Apple

Satya Nadella dynamic talking leader
Credit: Microsoft

Last week, Microsoft CEO said what Windows fans haven't wanted to admit: 

The fact that a billion-and-a-half users use Windows is incredible. And we want to be able to serve that base and grow that base with the innovation. ... And that’s what I want us to be focused on ... We have bigger hopes, higher aspirations for Windows. We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows, to loving Windows. That is our bold goal.

For far too long, Microsoft has abused Windows, releasing and then resolutely defending monstrosities like Vista and Windows 8 under a very cynical belief that people had no choice but to swallow Windows, whatever version Microsoft delivered. Its attitude on Office wasn't much different, so the product blew up to Jabba the Hut proportions.

When people had a real alternative to Windows, they moved at a pace never seen before in the history of technology, making the iPad the most quickly adopted technology ever. For half a decade, PC sales have declined, but Mac sales have grown, despite their huge price premium. Android also benefited from the "I don't need a new PC" attitude from individuals and businesses alike, and Google is now hoping so too will Chromebooks. Anything but Windows, right?

Thus, Nadella's comments are striking in their core acceptance that Windows today is unloved and his goal of making Windows beloved again -- as it once was, back in the Windows 95 days.

Also striking: Nadella is extremely clear about making Windows great again, with none of the pretense displayed by previous Microsoft regimes.

The whole thing reminds me very much of Apple in 2000. Apple had alienated not only the broad market but the Mac faithful after several years of really bad Macs, epitomized by the lousy Performa, and complete haplessness in its attempts to modernize Mac OS. It had a series of CEOs who had no clue what Apple was, leading the company from one rathole to another, while Apple's engineering team let its pirate culture turn into a piranha culture where everyone was eaten alive.

Apple was such a disaster in the late 1990s that publications like Macworld (where I was executive editor) supported the Mac clone effort simply because we didn't trust Apple to safeguard the platform.

Most people had given up on Apple by that point. But then-CEO Steve Jobs greatly simplified the Mac lineup in 1998, committed to a new Mac OS in 1999 (what we know today as OS X), and introduced the iPod in 2001 in language not so different from Nadella's today:

We are shepherding some of the great assets in the computer industry. If we want to move forward and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of a few things. ... You can’t talk about profit, you have to talk about emotional experiences. ... If we do our jobs right, no one else should be able to do what we can do.

Microsoft of course is nowhere near the dire straits in which Jobs found Apple when he returned in 1997. Microsoft has a strong server product line and a solid cloud business, unharmed by the repeated failures on the Windows and Windows Phone client sides.

Microsoft's culture hasn't had much room for pirates or piranhas, but it too has been dysfunctional for some time, as product groups ignored each other, letting Windows devolve from a platform to a mere brand. The utter lack of connection among Windows PCs, Windows Phones, Xboxes, and odd efforts like the Kin phone showed that. It still shocks me that Microsoft threw away the enterprise goodness of Windows Mobile when developing Windows Phone. Microsoft essentially handed the enterprise mobile market to the Apple iPhone, which was more Microsoft-compatible than Windows Phone.

The dysfunctional silos also appeared in the radical changes in user interface from one Windows version to the next -- they could have come from different companies and made little attempt to honor users' familiarity with and investment in the platform. "My Windows is better than yours -- or at least different" is how it came off.

Just as Apple's Jobs rationalized the Mac and set a long-term vision for OS X, it appears that Nadella is rationalizing Windows and the hardware constellation that runs on its various current versions. 

It also appears that Microsoft is trying to find new areas outside Windows, much as Apple did first with the iPod, then later with the iPhone and iPad. But Nadella can't take credit for Microsoft's current post-Windows products, which include Microsoft Azure, the Xbox, and the recently announced HoloLens virtual-reality technology -- they all predate Nadella's tenure as CEO. Then again, the roots of the  iPhone extend all the way back to the Newton MessagePad, a product first developed when Jobs was not at Apple.

What will matter is not whether Nadella initiated new product lines but whether he'll create a long-term vision for them, both as individual products and as part of a long-term strategy for Microsoft. Apple's Jobs clearly had such a strategy for the Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and now Apple Watch, which current CEO Tim Cook seems to be evolving nicely into other areas, from home automation to federated device services.

My impression from Nadella's clear, cogent vision is that he too has a grand evolutionary plan for Microsoft.

It would be ironic if Microsoft regains its glory under Nadella following the same kind of trajectory that Apple used under Jobs to go from near death to being the most valuable company on the planet. But it would also be a great development and a testament to the value of real leadership.

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