Microsoft's Uncanny Transformation
Microsoft has changed. Instead of ignoring or defending its mistakes, it's taking a radically different tack -- it's fixing them. Instead of another boring conference with an uncomfortable CEO taking center stage, TechEd was a breath of fresh air, packed with strong presentations, welcome announcements, entertaining videos and big product discounts that had devs lining up for hours.
06/10/13 5:00 AM PT
For much of the last decade, Microsoft has set an example more of doing things wrong than right, but at TechEd last week, Microsoft suddenly was showcasing a number of really smart decisions and best practices.
It almost felt like an event from a different company -- or the company I remember from the 1990s, before it got arrogant; when it was younger, more vital and a bit more fun. I'll expand on that this week and close with my product of the week: the new Intel Haswell processor.
Picking an MC by Skills - Not Title
For a long time, Microsoft and many other companies have selected the people who go on stage mainly by title and status and not by skill. As a result, we get overwhelmed with people who really suck on the big stage. For most of Microsoft's last decade, this was Steve Ballmer, who actually was rather good if placed in the proper venue (read interview) but generally sucked as keynote speaker or MC.
What's kind of sad is he clearly rehearsed and worked very hard to present well, but ever since he was criticized for the Monkey Boy "Developers, Developers, Developers" talk, he has been overly concerned with his appearance and, as a result, been stilted (read no fun) on stage.
Well at TechEd, Brad Anderson was the main MC for the keynote. For once, Microsoft picked someone who's relatively good at giving a talk to lead the talk, and that was just the beginning of what was a refreshing change.
As I understand it, you'll see something very similar at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, where the company's lead designer, not its dull CEO, will take the center stage this week. Presenters should be picked based on how well they present -- not on how big their title is -- and Microsoft did that right this year.
Bringing Back the Microsoft Films
Historically, Microsoft events were defined by humorous films that provided a message and were a ton of fun to watch -- here is one of my favorites. One year they had a fake documentary and even got old competitors to do cameo interviews, ending with a shot at Larry Ellison's excessive attraction to big sailboats.
Some of this sense of humor is actually coming back in ads positioned against the iPad, as well as against the iPhone and the Samsung S4 -- the wedding with the fighting attendees -- which are really fun to watch and, I think, brilliant commercials. Microsoft has done some fun things on the Web over the last few years, like this fake waterslide video, but it kind of lost its mojo at conferences.
However, TechEd started with a James Bond spoof -- granted, it wasn't that funny, but it was fun to watch and did drive home the point that security is now core to Microsoft. It even showcased a Microsoft customer, Aston Martin, very well (and damned if I don't want one now).
Fixing Past Mistakes
One of the mistakes Microsoft made last year was bringing the ARM version of Windows 8 to market crippled. Given that Windows 8 was designed to take the fight to Apple on the iPad, and that ARM provided the best alternative in terms of weight, price and performance, Microsoft should have been all-in with this effort.
Somebody missed that meeting, though, and the product was crippled and sold poorly as a result. What crippled it was the lack of Outlook and the lack of either a domain join option or a good workaround. Well, during the show -- although at a different venue, Computex -- Microsoft announced that Outlook would be on the product by year end and that there was a fix for the domain join issue.
Often when a company cripples a product, it denies the mistake until the product fails, but that didn't happen in this case. Once this fix is in place, Windows 8.1 RT should be able to rise to its full potential.
In this market, there are typically two company types -- the ones that provide services and the ones that provide solutions to those companies. Typically Microsoft would be in the latter class, but with Azure it went into cloud services.
Recognizing that its primary market would want to do its own thing, Microsoft created the Azure Pack, or a way for companies to provide their own custom Azure services either internally or externally. It was an unexpected move but one that particularly excited the TechEd audience.
Developers, Developers, Developers
One of the things that Steve Ballmer has been mercilessly teased about was that speech he gave on developers. What made this particularly sad was that Steve was dead-on right. It is developers who make Microsoft successful, and Microsoft remembered them at the show by giving members of its developer network up to 97 percent off if they wanted to use Azure for development and testing.
The developers in the audience really loved this, and the IT folks loved the part where any VM that was turned off was free. These are aggressive price positions targeted at getting developers to stay with or once again move to Microsoft platforms, and they were certainly very much appreciated by the audience.
Selling Out Surface
Microsoft had two good deals at TechEd: a Surface Tablet for US$400, or less than half off; or a Surface RT tablet for $100, or about 75 percent off. The line for buying them eventually had to be shut down -- not because Microsoft ran out of product, but because the conference center wouldn't let it run the line all night.
There was this massive number of IT folks and developers buying Surface products and willing to stand in horrific lines to buy them. That's how you develop advocacy for a new product. You get a bunch of influencers to use it -- and when folks buy something, they are much more likely to use that thing than if they get it for free.
Wrapping Up: Reorganization Around Cloud and Devices
During the show, Steve's plan to reorganize Microsoft around cloud services and devices was leaked. In short, Microsoft is going to be rebuilt around where the market is going and shift away from where the market is today. This is the kind of big gamble CEOs must make if they want to anticipate future opportunities and not become obsolete.
Few CEOs do this because it is very risky. You can guess wrong -- and that is why so few companies last more than a few decades. Eventually, the market moves on. Well, Microsoft's CEO apparently is stepping up to make this gamble. While the outcome is far from certain, he should be applauded for having the balls to make what appears to be a very reasonable bet, given that we do appear to be moving to a cloud and device market.
In short, suddenly we have a very different Microsoft this year. Given that Steve actually told me he was doing to make this change more than a decade ago, my only question is why did it take so long? Kudos to Microsoft and Steve Ballmer. Let's hope this is an indicator of better things to come.
Product of the Week: Intel's Haswell Processor
Speaking of changed companies, I haven't seen Intel move this fast to make a mammoth change in its processor architecture since it launched Centrino a decade ago. Going into this year, it was simply not competitive with the technologies that were going into tablets and smartphones.
However, at Computex last week Intel announced the Haswell and Silvermont processors, which are so much better than their predecessors, they might well have come from different companies. I haven't had a chance to use a Silvermont product yet, but I was on a Haswell desktop much of last week, and it is amazing.
Experiencing it on a desktop is hardly testing its mobile capabilities, but this is the quietest, most power-efficient, most fun-to-build (the shipping company must have played basketball with the box so I had to re-case it) system I've ever had.
Granted, the ARM folks aren't sleeping, but Intel has really stepped up to the plate with these new parts and have a number of design wins coming in the second half that should give us the thin laptops and tablets we want with the battery life we -- well, I -- need. Hey, if you make my life better, you'll be on the fast track for product of the week, and I love my new Intel Haswell test system.