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Article from Issue 166/2014

We don't cover a lot of Microsoft technology in this magazine (except in our "Interoperability" and "Living with Windows" issues), but sometimes the moving and shaking of Microsoft really does affect the rest of the high-tech industry. Redmond announced that they were laying off 18,000 people recently; big layoffs are always big news, and Microsoft's bold swipe dominated the high-tech headlines, but another important update from the empire received a lesser share of attention. New Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's manifesto to his employees, dated July 10, 2014, set out a new direction for the company.

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

We don't cover a lot of Microsoft technology in this magazine (except in our "Interoperability" and "Living with Windows" issues), but sometimes the moving and shaking of Microsoft really does affect the rest of the high-tech industry. Redmond announced that they were laying off 18,000 people recently; big layoffs are always big news, and Microsoft's bold swipe dominated the high-tech headlines, but another important update from the empire received a lesser share of attention. New Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's manifesto to his employees, dated July 10, 2014, set out a new direction for the company.

The massive memo, which has the subject line "Starting FY15 – Bold Ambition & Our Core," is not intended as a detailed plan with concrete goals but is more of a vision statement – with big, broad general hopes for the company. Only two years ago, previous CEO Steve Ballmer declared Microsoft was a "devices and services" company. Nadella now says the "devices and services" description was useful, but the company will "hone in" on a more refined vision of itself as a "productivity and platform" company. This kind of ethereal market-speak can drive engineers crazy, and it probably will before Microsoft finishes its transition. For now, all we can do is sift through Nadella's remarks to see if we can figure out what he might mean.

The text is stirring and motivational, with Nadella declaring, "We must discover our soul – our unique core." The company will favor boldness, innovation, and creativity. Such is the stuff of almost all "new direction" emails from CEOs. Still, if you read between the lines, you can get a sense of how the company plans to win back some of the momentum it has lost.

Nadella says Microsoft will think of every user as a "dual user," which he defines as "people who will use technology for their work or school and also deeply use it in their personal digital life." At first glance, this concept seems almost totally meaningless (because almost everyone already uses technology at both work and home), but on closer inspection, the "dual user" concept, which Nadella discusses extensively, lays the groundwork for Microsoft to present itself as standing apart from its competitors. Although the company continues to founder in the consumer mobile arena, they are actually quite well situated to provide tools and support for business users. If they can make the business and consumer markets merge, they can leverage their business dominance to shoehorn their way into the consumer space. Of course, just because they want to shoehorn their way into the consumer mobile space doesn't mean they will succeed. It actually seems a little far-fetched to imagine that legions of users will give up their Androids and iPads and turn to Windows Mobile phones so they will interface better with Azure cloud resources and Office spreadsheets. Still, that is about all Microsoft has to go with, and they would be crazy not to work it and see where it takes them.

Another tea leaf of possible interest is the attention to privacy. Nadella mentions privacy four times as a quality he wishes to associate with Microsoft, stating "Microsoft experiences will be unique as they will reason over information from work and life and keep a user in control of their privacy." Once again, this vision is not really a plan yet, but it is interesting to consider that Microsoft might be planning to distinguish itself from Google and Apple by actually making an effort to offer better privacy for the user. Offering real choice on privacy could be a game changer in the mobile market, where huge companies like Google base their entire business model on mining customer data.

Another intriguing passage in Nadella's memo is his emphasis on the Universal Windows Applications model, which Microsoft unveiled in April of this year. The Universal Windows Application initiative is all about building universal Windows apps that will run across PCs, tablets, phones, and (eventually) XBox systems. The Linux community heard a lot about this "convergence" concept a while ago when Canonical was working on crowdfunding the Ubuntu phone. Canonical never did succeed with their convergence initiative, but Microsoft might have the resources and the market infiltration to pull it off. And, if they succeed, convergence might eventually become viable for Linux as well.

Because all this visioning is still at the pep talk stage, it is impossible to know what it means or what Microsoft will do with the information. One thing is clear: If Microsoft's stockholders were content with the way things are now, Satya Nadella wouldn't have his job in the first place, and Steve Ballmer would still be driving the train. It will be a while before we know what Redmond has in mind, and it will be even longer before we know whether they will actually succeed, but in the meantime, it is interesting to watch Microsoft playing catch up.

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