In July, Microsoft's new CEO, Satya Nadella, issued a memo to employees about the company’s strategic direction. The company posted all 3,000+ words on its web site, but one 38-word sound bite pretty much summed up Nadella’s message:
At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.
Last week, at a small press briefing on Microsoft’s campus, Nadella and other executives expounded on that vision. Echoing Nadella’s memo, the company called the confab "Productivity: Reinvented."
Among other things, talking about productivity helps Microsoft set a course for itself that is distinct from that of its biggest rivals.
"To me," Nadella said at the event, "Apple is very, very clear [about its mission]. "Tim Cook did a great job of describing that recently when he said it sells devices." The strategy championed by Nadella's predecessor Steve Ballmer at the end of his tenure, when he took to describing Microsoft as a "devices and services company" felt like a Microsoftian gloss on the Apple way; Nadella's reframed mission does not.
As for Google, Nadella described its mission as "about data or advertising or serving you ads in a tasteful way. They’ve done a great job with that business." For the record, Google's own description of its reason for being—"to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful"—does not mention ads. Either way, though, the vision isn't about productivity per se.
Distinctive though it may be, Microsoft staking its future on productivity is only slightly more clarifying than Toyota announcing that it intends to focus on transportation would be. Useful software has always been core to the company's fortunes, from the moment in 1975 when Bill Gates and Paul Allen started a company to create a version of the BASIC programming language for the first personal computers.
So before Microsoft can reinvent productivity, the company needs to define it. Or, more specifically, to redefine it in a way which makes it fresh and exciting—something that not only can guarantee that Microsoft stays relevant, but help it to go places it's never been.
Once upon a time, productivity was inherently exciting. In the 1980s and early 1990s, fierce competition among makers of word processors, spreadsheets, presentation packages and other workaday software led to an extended jag of innovation and creativity. But by the time Word, Excel, and PowerPoint had definitively triumphed over WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, and Harvard Graphics, productivity had stopped being scintillating. It was just another software category in which Microsoft's market share was monopolistic.
Since then, productivity has perked up: There are viable Office alternatives such as Google Apps, and interesting startups like Quip. But like other buzzwords which were big in the 1990s—"multimedia," say—the term has something of a shopworn feel to it.
It wasn't startling, then, that Microsoft's event felt like a pep talk for the whole concept of productivity, reasserting its significance beyond the venerable apps that make up Office and expanding its boundaries as far as possible. "How do we help humans conquer the space/time boundary, both individually and as groups"?" Nadella asked, summarizing the challenge that Microsoft was assigning itself. Then a moment later: "How do we create tools that get them that digital assist in terms of getting things done?"
In the end, the company's new definition of productivity seems to encompass anything which isn't...well, unproductive. If it helps someone accomplish a practical task at work or at home, it's productivity.
And maybe it’s fitting that this event devoted to encouraging people to rethink their perceptions of productivity devoted only a little time to Office, in the form of a demo of the upcoming Windows 10 version of the suite which Microsoft says will ship at the same time the operating system does, around the middle of 2015. (It looks good, and very much like the iPad and Android editions of the suite.)
Most of what Microsoft demonstrated or otherwise spotlighted wasn’t Office. It didn’t run on Windows—at least exclusively—and wasn’t always the sort of thing which most people would classify as involving productivity. It included:
- Sway, a presentation tool which breaks away from PowerPoint’s antediluvian slide metaphor altogether by reformatting your content on the fly to look good on PCs, tablets, and phones.
- The Skype Translator Preview, which uses cloud-based technology to interpret between multiple spoken languages during a Skype call.
- Revolve, an upcoming app for Windows phones which melds aspects of a calendar and contact manager, and presents you with information about people you’re going to meet with that it’s collected from multiple sources.
- Next Lock Screen, a utility for Android phones which puts various useful things on their lock screens, including the ability to join a conference call directly from a meeting reminder.
- Possible future features for the Cortana intelligent assistant that is currently part of Windows Phone, such as the ability to answer the question "Hey, Cortana, did I do that exercise properly?"
- Cities Unlocked, a research project in the U.K. which aims to help blind people traverse urban streets through the use of bone-conducting 3-D-sound headsets which get navigation cues from beacons situated along a route.
Those items cover a lot of ground. There's Microsoft bringing a fresh take to a classic productive task, as it does in Sway. With Next Lock Screen, it defies its reputation for favoring its own platforms. The Skype Translator Preview brings cutting-edge technology out of the lab and puts it into a consumer product. And Cities Unlocked has the potential to transform people's lives in a way that even great software and services rarely do.
And all of it, Nadella maintained, is part of a product focus which is less far-flung than it might look. When considering Microsoft's products, "I just think about three things," he said. "There’s Windows, there is Office 365, and there is [cloud platform] Azure. That’s it. Everything else, to me, you can call them features."
At first blush, it may be tough to reconcile some of what Microsoft showed at its event with Nadella's contention that it's all about Windows, Office, and Azure. What, for instance, is the company doing writing an Android utility such as Next Lock Screen? Chief experience officer Julie Larson-Green explained that it saw Google's mobile operating system as lower-hanging fruit than Apple's iOS or its own Windows Phone. "Android," she said, "is the easiest one to make a difference on. It's a sea of icons." But features such as easy access to conference calls might wend their way into products closer to Microsoft's heart and more vital to its future.
Speaking of Google, Next Lock Screen and other small-scale efforts that are experimental and (sometimes) a tad idiosyncratic are part of Microsoft Garage, a program that lets Microsoft employees tackle projects they're passionate about. It's very much like the fulcrum of experimentation which Google called Google Labs. But while Labs got shut down in 2011 as part of Google's ongoing efforts to impose more discipline on itself, the Garage—which has been in quiet operation for six years—is ramping up as Microsoft attempts to get consumers and business customers thinking of it as a company that's nimble, imaginative, and daring.
For all its talk of a mission built around productivity, Microsoft isn't recasting itself as being all work and no play. Yet when Nadella spoke—briefly—of using technology for entertainment purposes, as the company does with the Xbox and elsewhere, he made it sound ennobling rather than frivolous. "I’m not saying that consumption experiences of music and fun aren’t important," he said. "After all, humans need that."
Microsoft’s acquisition of Minecraft maker Mojang—which also got a quick mention at the event—is a $2.5 billion statement that the company isn’t trying to extricate itself from the game business. Still, the fact that it’s Minecraft that Microsoft bought rather than, say, Angry Birds's Rovio may be meaningful. With its emphasis on building things rather than blowing them up, Minecraft is the closest thing on the planet to a game that's about being productive.
Despite the past-tense phrasing of "Productivity: Reinvented," the press briefing was more of a call to arms than a declaration of mission accomplished. Nothing Microsoft showed at it showed obvious signs of having the potential to be as important in 2015 and beyond as Windows and Office have been. Nadella said as much: "I’d say we are in the early phases and there’s going to be significant amounts of experimentation."
In fact, the biggest statement about productivity that Microsoft made last week wasn't anything it said at the briefing. It was its launch of ambitious versions of Office for iPhones and Android tablets, and its decision to offer much of the functionality of all of Office's mobile apps for free. This company has come a long way from 2011, when it unveiled Windows 8, a product which—though bold and imaginative—did not appear to acknowledge the possibility that Microsoft might be smarter to make itself invaluable on competitive platforms than to cram too much newness into its own platform all at once.
From what we know of Windows 10, the first version of the Nadella era, it reflects a more realistic assessment of what Microsoft is capable of doing with an operating-system upgrade. Today, Nadella said at the event, "Windows is a subset of devices which can rendezvous with our cloud very successfully. That’s how we think of it."
I simply can't envision Steve Ballmer, had he stuck around longer, bringing himself to characterize Windows as a valuable supporting player in this way.
Unlike Ballmer's "devices and services" mantra, Nadella's take on Microsoft's mission has a heartfelt quality to it. "I want us to take on the challenge of reinventing productivity," he said, during one of the many moments when he hammered home the press briefing's overarching message. "We’ve done ourselves and the world a disservice by not taking on that challenge. Who else but us will care as much?"
Microsoft will have to do a lot more than care, of course. And as Nadella himself has repeatedly noted, tradition doesn't get you anywhere in the tech industry. Only innovation does. But maybe Microsoft will have the best possible shot at reinventing productivity—and itself—if its employees believe that to be the manifest destiny the company has had all along.