Suddenly, Microsoft is interesting again


(Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

We knew it was going to be an interesting year for Microsoft. The company opened 2014 with the announcement of a new chief executive, a shakeup of its executive ranks and the long-awaited (some would say overdue) release of Office for the iPad. After years of acting like the big guy in the room -- to the point, really, of being a punchline -- the firm is acknowledging its weaknesses, speaking bluntly about it obstacles and talking about being a challenger in the mobile world.

And just like that, Microsoft is interesting again.

The shift in vision started during the tenure of former chief executive Steve Ballmer, but it's taking center stage at this week's Microsoft developers conference. Microsoft announced Thursday that it's making some of its core software framework technology open source -- a move that looks even more radical since the firm said it was going after Android by taking a leaf of the Google playbook and making the Windows Phone mobile platform free for manufacturers of smaller devices. (Microsoft is also offering Windows 8.1 for free  to those who make new, connected devices for the "Internet of Things.")

The CEO shift at Microsoft is "coming to even fuller clarity today," said Al Hilwa, an analyst at International Data Corporation. "To be clear, much of this transition has been in the works under Ballmer, but the choice to accelerate the shift and make it more visible externally is definitely the new world order at Microsoft."

Leading that new world is Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, who took the stage Wednesday to give his vision for the firm: to drop the Microsoft ego and make Windows the solution for all people on all devices -- even if the hardware is made by someone else.

"You want to build for Windows because we're going to innovate with a challenger mindset," Nadella said, addressing a pretty blunt question about why any developer should even bother with the Windows platform, particularly on mobile. "We're not coming at this as some incumbent coming to do the next version of Windows. We're going to come at this by innovating in every dimension."

Microsoft made a litany of big announcements  Wednesday, ranging from the introduction of a new voice-controlled mobile assistant (named Cortana, after the AI assistant in the Halo games) to the news that the next update of Windows 8.1 would bring back the Start menu that the company had killed in Windows 8.

On Thursday, Microsoft was trading down slightly, to $40.96 per share. The firm hit a 14-year high last month after its Office for iPad announcement.

Nadella's new, open approach is undeniably risky, analysts say, but it seems to have put Microsoft on the right track.

"The company has its challenges," wrote IDC analysts Al Gillen, Hilwa and Brett Waldman in a Thursday report. "But if Nadella's first two months on the job are any indication of where he will take the company, the future is looking brighter as the company begins to show its agility in coming to terms with a new world order where it is not the dominant player in client devices."

Check out Nadella's remarks from Wednesday below; he begins speaking around the 02:36:33 mark:

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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