“What do you think is the biggest hardware business at Microsoft?” asked Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella last week during a private media event. “Xbox,” answered a reporter who had been quizzing Nadella on how the company’s hardware products like Surface and Xbox fit into the broader ambitions of Microsoft. “No, it’s our cloud,” fired back Nadella, explaining how Microsoft is building everything from the data centers to the servers and network stack that fit inside.
As the reporter pushed further on the hardware point, a frequent question given Microsoft’s focus on the cloud, Nadella provided us with the best vision for the modern Microsoft that moves well beyond the billion-or-so Windows users that previously defined the company.
“The way I look at it is Windows is the billion user install base of ours. We continue to add a couple of hundred million PCs every year, and we want to serve that in a super good way,” explained Nadella. “The thing that we also want to think about is the broader context. We don’t want to be defined by just what we achieved. We look at if there’s going to be 50 billion endpoints. Windows with its billion is good, Android with its 2 billion is good, iOS with its billion is good — but there is 46 billion more. So let’s go and look at what that 46 billion plus 4 [billion] looks like, and define a strategy for that, and then have everything have a place under the sun.”
Microsoft has talked about the potential for rapid Internet of Things (IoT) growth from sensors and simple devices for years, all while the company has been building a cloud empire and quietly acquiring companies that will help it manage these billions of cloud-connected devices. Some analysts claim that there are already 22 billion connected devices, growing to 50 billion connected devices this year, by 2025, or 2030 depending on which study you believe. There might be disagreement on exactly how many devices will be connected to the internet and when, but Nadella has reorganized Windows and Azure to get ready for them.
“Sometimes I say, ‘Hey, look. Should I call Windows... Azure Edge?’” revealed Nadella during the same media event last week, noting that’s what the operating system essentially is today by using the hardware to expose an app model. “Our new organization that manages all of this at the core kernel level and the hardware ... that team is the same. Whether it is something that is on Surface or something on Azure host, it’s literally the same people.”
While we often hear Nadella quote philosophers or poets in memos, investor calls, and during onstage appearances, it’s rare to hear him be so direct and succinct about Microsoft’s ambitions. You don’t need to decipher his language here to understand that Microsoft is looking far beyond iOS, Android, and Windows to build Azure into what the company calls “the world’s computer.”
It’s easy for consumers to misunderstand Nadella’s new Microsoft that’s focused on Azure and cloud computing or worry the company could be turning into another IBM. Microsoft will need to tread carefully if it wants to avoid such comparisons. But the company is certainly being ambitious in its efforts to create a cross-platform environment that spans the world’s computing devices — whether that’s making distributed computing possible with elastic processing power and storage or using Xbox technology to build microcontrollers for its Azure Sphere operating system that’s built on top of a custom Linux kernel.
Microsoft also faces huge challenges from competitors that also want to manage these billions of internet-connected devices. Amazon, ARM, Dell, Huawei, Cisco, IBM, Intel, Google, HP, Oracle, Qualcomm, Samsung, and more are fighting over this potential market, but there’s no clear winner in sight. The software giant will also need to convince competitors, and partner with many, if it’s even going to get close to pulling off this ambitious bet. That’s why we’ve seen Microsoft partner with Amazon on Alexa and Cortana integration, Samsung for Android apps, Walmart on tech for grocery stores, Sony on the future of gaming in the cloud, and many more in recent years.
Nadella has obviously steered Microsoft in a different direction since taking over as CEO nearly six years ago. The results were evident after just a year, and the company reorganized its Windows division nearly two years ago to prepare for a world beyond Windows. Nadella’s message back in October when Microsoft embraced Android for the Surface Duo was that the operating system doesn’t matter, and it’s all about the app model and experience. It’s an obvious acknowledgment of how mobile computing has shifted the way we communicate and work, and it’s a nod that Microsoft is looking far more broadly to get back to its roots as a software company — not just the maker of Windows and Office — and try not to miss the next big thing.
That doesn’t mean Windows is dead or that Microsoft will give up on it anytime soon. It’s just not as important as it once was to the company when you consider the future Nadella is building Microsoft toward.
“We are absolutely, no question, allocating a lot to what is that next big thing,” explained Nadella last week. “But at the same time, we’re also not saying that’s our way back to saying all of iOS, all of Android, and all of Windows will suddenly be subsumed by this one thing. If anything, what people have come to realize is that Windows is there with a billion users, iOS is there with a billion users, and Android is there with 2 billion users. It’s not like one killed the other.”