Welcome to the 21st century, Microsoft -- took you long enough

Perennially late to the party, Microsoft at last makes moves to get its mobile, open source, and cloud efforts on track

Check off the biggest trends in the tech industry -- mobile, open source, cloud -- and it's a sure bet Microsoft was late to the party and underdressed when it got there. The company has had some serious 'splaining to do over the years, but with new CEO Satya Nadella at the helm, it's making genuine strides toward catching up.

The new Microsoft was on display last week, when the company finally released Office for iPad. As InfoWorld's Galen Gruman wrote, "[Microsoft] has been steadfastly crippling its software on other platforms in hopes of forcing people to stick with Windows. But with [Friday's] announcement, new CEO Satya Nadella broke from that past, and it's a major, necessary mental shift for the company."

Woody Leonhard breathed a sigh of relief: "Microsoft finally knows how to build a touch interface." While granting that Office for iPad faces a long uphill road toward adoption, Leonhard maintains that "[Microsoft] came up with a product that may well foretell the redemption of Windows as we know it. Yes, it's that impressive."

The Office for iPad announcement also heralded Microsoft's transformation into a company that puts the cloud front and center. As Eric Knorr noted, Nadella "did what his predecessor Steve Ballmer seemed constitutionally unable to do: Declare unequivocally that cloud and mobile were first, not just for Microsoft platforms, but across every device."

To back up this "conscious uncoupling" strategy, Microsoft announced at the Build conference this week that it is open-sourcing the WinJS JavaScript framework under GitHub -- a move that should help developers more quickly build cross-platform apps and spread Microsoft's technology beyond Windows.

In another barrier-breaking plan aimed at developers, Microsoft unveiled Universal Windows, which will enable the building of apps with a common code base that can run across PCs, smartphones, tablets, and even the Xbox One. Nadella affirmed that Microsoft going forward will focus on making APIs more consistent and seamless across apps. However, as Leonhard points out, two years ago Microsoft talked of "'[Windows 8 providing] a common interface and programming API set from phones to servers.' At the time, it was hogwash -- pure PR garbage. ... But this time, I think there may be some walk to the Softie talk."

As an incentive to spur the development of more Windows smartphones and tablets, Microsoft also announced at Build that Windows will be available free to manufacturers for mobile devices with screens smaller than nine inches. Windows Phone is currently a distant third in the mobile market behind Android and iOS, and Gruman says, "Microsoft made all the classic arrogant Microsoft mistakes" with the mobile OS since its "terribly mishandled" inception. But the company is finally moving in the right direction:

What was so smart was Nokia/Microsoft's commitment to making the forthcoming Windows Phone 8.1 update run on all recent Nokia Lumia Windows Phone devices, and on recent models from other makers as well.

... In developed countries, a guarantee of future compatibility for a reasonable period is great for customer loyalty, and it reflects the fact that people are hanging on to smartphones longer than before, now that mobile technology's innovation pace has slowed.

To make Windows phones even more appealing to users, Microsoft introduced Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1's new personal assistant and Microsoft's answer to Apple's Siri. Cortana was shown off at Build following voice commands -- including searching the Web for information and performing calendar tasks -- and returning answers on screen and in a computerized voice.

Windows 8 users were also relieved to hear that Microsoft will address many of that operating system's more irritating "features" in an update planned for April 8. ZDnet's Mary Jo Foley calls Windows 8.1 Update "what Windows 8 should have been from the start." Despite the fact that the Metro start screen isn't going anywhere, Foley says that "with the 8.1 Update installed, Windows 8 feels more familiar, sensible and useful to me. Moving between Metro and Desktop is finally starting to feel less jarring." And by "delivering a way to turn legacy Win32 business apps into modern touch apps," Network World says Microsoft has provided a feature that could prod businesses into adopting Windows 8.1. (InfoWorld's own Woody Leonhard has a hands-on review of Windows 8.1 Update 1.)

Most of these changes are proof that Microsoft is finally doing what it arguably would have done long ago, if it had been paying attention to the market and to users. But to show that Microsoft is prepared to get out in front of a rising trend for a change, Nadella announced the company will release a new, free Windows for the Internet of things. Granted, the details of how Microsoft will deliver a world of interconnected Windows hardware were a bit vague, but the sight of Corporate VP Joe Belfiore dancing on an oversized "first-ever piano that runs on Windows" was a spectacle designed to wow the Build crowd.

Some things seemingly don't change -- like the inevitable news of a bug in the Windows installer -- but Microsoft's finally making the right moves and saying the right words. Time will tell if the culture in Redmond can change fast enough to deliver on them.

This story, "Welcome to the 21st century, Microsoft -- took you long enough," 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 developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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