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?
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.
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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.