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By | Gavin Clarke 5th February 2015 14:02

Microsoft's Nadella: Congratulations on 12 months of not being Steve Ballmer

Hard yards and difficult years lie ahead

It’s Satya Nadella’s first year as chief executive of the world’s largest software company.

What has happened during that time? My Reg colleague Neil McAllister listed the notable developments here earlier today.

Over the past 12 months, we've seen Windows 10 as a preview; Office for iOS, Android and even HoloLens; a new version of the Surface slablet; the open-sourcing of .Net and several acquisitions.

The biggest headline-grabber was its purchase of Minecraft-maker Mojang for $2.5bn.

Cue wistful sigh: can that man do no wrong? Some certainly seem to think so, as his firm Thursday was reported to have bought the maker of a Calendar app for $100m.

Many of those projects announced in 2014 would have been long in gestation and begun under the tenure of Nadella’s predecessor Steve Ballmer.

The project converging the Windows PC and phone cores with Windows 10 had been long running – as was development of Windows 10, the retreat from Windows 8. A new version of Surface was inevitable, of course.

The achievements that can be attributed to Nadella in the last 12 months now Ballmer is gone would have been business calls: buying Mojang was one of these.

Another such decision was to give Windows away for free on devices with screens smaller than nine inches, a move made four months into Nadella’s tenure.

Satya, you're so better than the other one that was sat here

Arguably Nadella’s biggest achievement is the fact he’s new ... and not Steve Ballmer.

Since he grabbed the wheel in February 2014, Microsoft’s stock price has gone up by 24 per cent to January this year.

You can debate about why the growth occurred: some would say it’s the flow of onwards and upwards product news since February – putting Office on iOS, for example.

Ballmer was Windows first and last, and putting one of the crown jewels such as Office on a non-Windows platform like iOS would have been unconscionable.

Years before, Ballmer was dragged into Microsoft’s server admin products, working with Red Hat Linux in addition to Windows Servers.

At the time, Nadella was a new face with a fresh and platform-agnostic approach: hailing from Microsoft’s Server and Tools business, his heritage was working with rivals.

Nadella’s face fit a change agenda that Wall St, investors, fans and the industry as a whole wanted but which would have been impossible under Ballmer.

He also suited a company that didn’t want, or was unable to find, an outsider to run things.

What exactly does Nadella represent? He’s talked windily of cloud first and mobile first, but how Microsoft will make money from this?

Why buy Minecraft's maker – for the machine learning and the ecosystem? And how does that actually translate into money for Microsoft.

Elsewhere, the idea is to seed the market with Windows devices that feed Microsoft’s data centres with business and consumer data though services like Office 365 for which it charges users on subscriptions. It’s double bubble.

Reality bites

But you don’t get something for nothing and Nadella last year sanctioned a policy of price cuts in Windows licensing to drive the update of cheap Windows devices to feed that strategy of pumping data into the cloud and selling more subscriptions.

He sanctioned giving away Windows to machines with a screen smaller than nine inches in April 2014.

The consequence has been a huge bite taken out of Microsoft's licensing sales rump – one of its core businesses: Windows licensing fell 13 per cent last quarter. Sales of new versions of Office fell a quarter as Microsoft pushed Office 365.

The effect shocked Wall St: Microsoft’s stock fell 14 per cent the day after the news, knocking out half the gain it had made since Nadella came to office – Microsoft’s stock rose 31 per cent between February and its high point of $49.61 in November.

Nadella’s first year was easy: he simply uncorked a dam of policies that his predecessor couldn’t. It was like Barrack Obama's first few months in the White House after George W Bush left in 2008.

But Nadella’s hardest years lie ahead: shiny technology announcements mean little unless they translate into actual money.

Nadella doesn’t need plaudits from the gadget press for putting Office on iOS and Android – he needs them to make money for Microsoft’s shareholders.

On Office 365 Nadella needs more than “run-rate” – the bandwagon all industry giants are desperately jumping aboard to prove their cloud strategy is working.

Run rate isn’t real money and it can’t be relied on as proof of future success.

Office 365 subs must materially make more for today’s bottom line than the lucrative Office business that’s apparently being wilfully sacrificed.

Windows 10, the “next chapter” in Windows, must overcome serious bugs and limitations - and must quickly overtake Windows 7 as the de facto PC operating system.

Giving Windows 10 away for free for 12 months will only hurt Microsoft’s already damaged Windows licensing engine further.

Tough choices are need on strategy for getting businesses and consumers to willingly use Windows 10 – Redmond will also need to think about how and at what point to make them pay.

Nokia needs to turn into a success if Microsoft is serious about mobile phones and running Windows on those devices: Nokia is the only device maker shouldering Windows Phone, and Microsoft’s operating system is almost a market-share rounding error.

Nadella had a nice year, more or less. The coming years won’t be so kind and if the exec can’t make the kind of decisions that produce the amounts of solid cash Microsoft is used to producing, then he won’t have to many of them to put on his LinkedIn profile as CEO of Microsoft. ®

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