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Microsoft must embrace its changing role – the open source column

Changes at the top of Microsoft generated excitement at the start of the year. Not with Simon, though...

Hoo-ha was not in short supply when news rumbled out of managerial changes in the land of Microsoft, back at the start of this year. Satya Nadella, a man who has spent over 20 years on the firm’s payroll, is succeeding Steve Ballmer as the company’s new CEO. Meanwhile, Bill Gates is no longer chairman, and instead has taken up a role – that many believe will see him more involved – as ‘technology advisor’. Rumours even suggest that the vending machine in the canteen is to start stocking Vimto.

The announcement and changes certainly made lots of noise, and Microsoft will now plough forward into Windows 9. Lots of bluster about apparent vitality and the importance of Microsoft followed soon enough.

Nadella for one wrote a letter to employees, sent the day his appointment was announced, that declared, ‘I am here for the same reason I think most people join Microsoft – to change the world through technology that empowers people to do amazing things’. Well, I say he sent it to employees. Microsoft thoughtfully popped it on its press site too, for that added personal touch.

I took an extra gulp of coffee before scrolling down a few more paragraphs. As the caffeine started its journey to my bloodstream, the following words stood out:

‘We are the only ones who can harness the power of software and deliver it through devices and services that truly empower every individual and every organisation. We are the only company with history and continued focus in building platforms and ecosystems that create broad opportunity.’

And that, ladies in gentleman, is why Microsoft’s future is so seemingly bleak in the very long term. Because it’s clearly tosh, isn’t it? There’s an abundance of brilliance, talent and expertise residing without Microsoft’s corporate bunkers, but when it’s guided by heat-seeking arrogance of that ilk, you can’t help but feel that the point is being missed. Because this isn’t the Eighties and Nineties anymore. Microsoft may still have an ability to slap its name on a box and sell things better than most, but to say ‘we are the only ones’ flies in the face of collaboration, more logical ways of working, and – without wishing to get too po-faced – the greater good.

Of course, it’s little secret that Microsoft’s place in the world has been slipping for some time now. It enjoys successes, but most of its business areas feel past their peak, or show signs of chasing after a boat that set sail many years ago. To change that, and to genuinely turn things around, a new CEO – with or without Bill Gates around – has to accept that not only have platforms changed, but so has ethos. Were Microsoft to properly embrace that, to direct its undoubted brilliance in more lateral, risky ways, it may yet decline, but it may also cement itself a far healthier longer- term future. In short, Microsoft may still matter in 25 years’ time.

Change has caught Microsoft out before, and it will be interesting to see just how it adapts as it progresses with its Windows 9 project. As things stand, it needs more than a new name on its letterhead to give the firm the fresh impetus it desperately needs.