Microsoft: Not the company it used to be

When you’ve been around technology as long as I have, it can be interesting to reflect on where we’ve come from, and how things have changed. Watching Apple go from scrappiness and near bankruptcy to a public company with a trillion dollar valuation, for example.

Then, there’s Microsoft, the company everyone loved to hate. The company that didn’t really innovate because it didn’t have to. The company who played well — with itself. My, but how times have changed.

Of course, much of this can, I believe, be traced back to the naming of Satya Nadella as CEO nearly five years ago. But in the time since, I’ve seen a lot of things I never thought I would see:

  • Microsoft Office on iOS and Android devices. This is (very) old news now, but Microsoft long ago managed to create Office ecosystem apps for mobile operating systems that aren’t their own — apps I use every day on iOS. While there have been some glitches along the way, on balance, the “edit anywhere” value proposition Microsoft has provided with Office has been a massive productivity boost for me.
  • Leveraging the cloud. On the one side, you have Microsoft with its Azure platform, becoming a viable competitor in the cloud space, and giving Amazon Web Services some serious competition. And on the other, you have Microsoft itself leveraging its cloud to power its Office ecosystem and that “edit anywhere” capability I just mentioned, and the cloud storage I’ll mention next…
  • Embracing subscription models and offering great value. While I’m not a fan of subscription models for software in every domain, Microsoft’s approach — and I’m referring specifically, in this case, to Microsoft Office 365 — is refreshing. The company is providing exceptional value; for less than $9 a month (paid annually), you get Office for six users (enough for all but the largest of families), and each of the six can be signed-in on up to five devices at once.* That includes OneNote, Microsoft’s much-improved-over-time, multi-platform note taking application. You also get 1 TB — yes, a terabyte — of OneDrive cloud storage per user. When you consider that 1 TB of cloud storage on Dropbox is $8.25 per user, per month, and Evernote (cloud notetaking) is $8 per user, per month, Microsoft Office 365 starts to look like the deal of century… Cloud storage and cloud notetaking for a family of six with those services would be nearly $100 a month all by itself — and even for one person it’s a net cost savings to go with Office 365 instead.
  • Innovation. Microsoft is also innovating. Microsoft Sway hasn’t seemed to gain much traction (the iOS app for it is being discontinued), but it shows that the company isn’t afraid to try things. Microsoft Soundscape is another example of the company’s research arm working to try new concepts and ideas that could prove revolutionary for some audiences. And Microsoft Lens is actually a cool little app for capturing things like white board contents during a meeting, scanning business cards, and so on. It’s like having a document scanner and digitizing tool in your pocket.

Sure, there are some missteps; recent chatter about Skype is one example. And I personally feel that Microsoft isn’t demonstrating leadership in UI and UX design (one look at OneDrive, and that’s readily apparent). But on balance, these complaints seem like nits, and stats like Microsoft having 31.4 million Office subscribers would suggest they’re getting more than a few things right.

As much of an Apple fanboy as I might be — I’m not going to be buying a Microsoft Surface anytime soon, and I’ll resist using any Windows PC with every fiber of my being (despite years of using them) — I rather like seeing the company innovate and succeed. And certain things, like Microsoft Office, just aren’t ever going to be supplanted by stuff like Apple’s Pages, Numbers and Keynote — at least not for me. The big, ugly, threatening monsters of the tech world these days seem to be Google, Amazon, Apple (speaking of), Facebook and others… Microsoft? It’s practically an underdog (albeit a very big one) at this point, and being that I tend to go for the underdog? I guess I’m a Microsoft fanboy now too.