Microsoft After Microsoft, Time To Go Under The Radar

Looking at the business fundamentals, there are both very good and very bad signs for Microsoft's new CEO Satya Nadella. Is there a (positive) lesson in IBM's evolution?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
Julien Dupont-Calbo


PARIS — Try and picture this: It's just after dawn, and outside the closed doors of a big store, a flock of T-shirts are growing impatient. Hundreds of geeks are fighting against sleep so they can be among the first to get their hands on the new … Windows.

This is not the screenplay of some new comedy, or a sci-fi adventure either. This actually happened, all around the world, back in the summer of 1995 when Microsoft released Windows 95.

At the time, Les Echos described it as a "Hollywood-like launch," a "fever" that affected "fanatics." We even wondered whether a "cornered" Apple could resist the onslaught.

That was 19 years ago, an eternity, a time when Bill Gates was more the object of hero-worship than Steve Jobs.

Today, Microsoft neither enchants, nor strikes fear, like it did back then. Its big bad wolf costume is gathering dust in the wardrobe. In late September, the company unveiled Windows 10, the successor of that "90s star. Out with simultaneous global broadcasting. In comparison, the presentation was almost done in secret.

But if truth be told, Microsoft is using its new public perception to its advantage. Devouring Little Red Riding Hoods no longer suits the company, if the well-rehearsed lines of the "Microsoftees" are to be believed. They say "just look at Apple," and the onerous conditions it imposes on its partners. Or Google, which "under the pretence of offering you free services, snoops on your private life to sell adverts."

Indeed it is these "new barbarians," singled out by crushed competitors, that draw the attention of European regulators and tax authorities.

Truths of a fairy tale

Microsoft now wants to be the good guy of the story, like the grandmother from whom we only expect goodness and caring. And now it seems, this quieter, more clever approach seems to be working. There’s no trace of the Redmond giant in the acronym GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), today’s symbol of the domination — predation — on the digital world.

That said, you don’t have to believe in fairy tales. First of all because Microsoft is still the leader in software, with its operating system equipping 9 out of every 10 PCs in the world, holding on to close to $90 billion in cash reserves, and racking up $23 billion in revenue last quarter.

But the fairy tale is also undermined by the fact that behind these raw figures, reality is not as shiny as it seems. Only a few years ago, Microsoft had a monopoly on people’s access to the Internet thanks to its stranglehold on computers. That’s ancient history now. Today, the new Microsoft is Google. The search giant is the one calling the shots, with Android and its 80% share of the smartphone and tablet market, the devices that are now the main support for the public’s online activities.

In that domain, Microsoft is a lamb. Its share of the mobile market is ridiculously low, below 5%. It’s bad given that Windows is the cornerstone of Microsoft’s system. Beginning in 2009, then CEO Steve Ballmer put all his efforts into trying to repair his original mistake not to invest in the mobile business when it was needed, before the iPhone launched in 2007. The purchase of Nokia will not change that in the short or medium term. This summer, the longtime CEO departed, on to use his theatrical presentations to harangue his new employees, the basketball players at the Los Angeles Clippers.

It’s now up to Satya Nadella to heal the company’s wounds. Since his appointment in February, this pure product of Microsoft seems to be doing away with the company’s ambitions to make inroads directly with consumers. Instead, he advocates a return to the roots, refocusing on corporate clients and on "personal productivity." Nobody is more legitimate than Microsoft in that field.

The good ol" days — Photo: Marcin Wichary

But computing has changed in offices too. Online apps are revolutionizing the whole sector. The first transformation is the fact that the ecosystem of partners — software editors, application developers and hardware manufacturers — is becoming crucially important, just like in the mobile sector where Microsoft’s failure is mostly due to the weakness of its "apps" offering in the Windows Store. In that regard, Samsung’s decision to stop selling Windows PCs in Europe is a real alert.

Heads in clouds

The second transformation is due to the broader economic model of computing. From the hard sale of software and licences, Microsoft’s kingdom, we’re moving towards renting and on-demand payment, depending on our needs and consumption. It’s a whole different culture.

Nadella knows the rules of the new game. He was in charge of the company’s cloud activities. Under his leadership, Microsoft set up solid infrastructure and a competitive offer. The new CEO will now try to move the mothership and see her habits evolve. He made Windows available for free on smartphones and mini tablets and released an iPad version of the Office suite. As for Windows 10, it will be finalized with the help of clients.

To adapt Microsoft's workforce to his strategy, the new CEO also announced in July an 18,000 jobs cut. But he hasn’t (yet) swapped the income represented by Windows and Office, which still accounted for 38% of the group’s operational benefits last year, for a model without guaranteed revenues. You can’t change Microsoft in a day.

The way forward could be to chart a path similar to the one IBM took. "It’s the only one that resisted all revolutions," Pat Gelsinger, VMWare’s CEO told us a year ago. Their secret? Anticipation, low profile and sacrifice. IBM has already been preparing in its little corner for the mutation towards mobile computing, the cloud and mega data for 15 years, and didn’t hesitate to sell its PC division in 2005, when there was still money in the sector.

The lesson the grandfather of computing seems to teach us is that to stay big, you sometimes have to make yourself small. The 17th-century French author Charles Perrault once wrote that the most dangerous wolves were the gentle ones. In that case, Microsoft already has done part of the job.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!