Ever since Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella took over for Steve Ballmer and started putting his own stamp on the software giant, Microsoft watchers and customers alike have scrutinized his every utterance looking for clues to the future. And he's been quite accommodating, issuing lengthy public statements about how the company will move forward. But this week, at a curiously minor event, he offered up what I think is his most cogent explanation of the mobile part in his "mobile first, cloud first" strategy.
When you think about phrases like "mobile first, cloud first"—or the earlier and similar "devices and services"—and consider how such things make sense within the context of Microsoft, you arrive at one obvious conclusion: The services part makes plenty of sense since it's not hard to imagine how Microsoft will take its slew of traditional server products and rework them as cloud services. Azure and Office 365 are, after all, modern cloud-based takes on Microsoft's historically biggest product lines.
But mobile is the weak link, assuming of course you take the term literally. Many see mobile and assume that the firm is referring to in-house products like Surface, Xbox, Nokia Lumia and Perceptive Pixel. But in examining Mr. Nadella's comments about this strategy, I've argued that what he is really describing is mobile more broadly, more inclusively, that he's including—even emphasizing—mobile devices and platforms that are popular but made by other companies.
In this light, "mobile first, cloud first" makes more sense and each side of the equation is complementary. Microsoft releases mobile apps on all popular platforms that drive users to their cloud-based platforms. On the flipside, Microsoft's cloud-based services are broadly available on all popular mobile platforms, so its users can stay in the Microsoft stack even if they adopt an iPhone or an Android tablet, or whatever.
This holistic view of the industry is simply pragmatic, I think. A clear-eyed approach to the realities Microsoft now faces in the market. But it flies in the face of decades of previous Microsoft strategies, which one might summarize as "Windows only" or perhaps "Windows first." And as surely as it rankles many inside Microsoft who pine for the days of dominance past, it also rankles many Microsoft followers and customers, who perceive this strategy as undercutting Windows.
So there's been some debate about how serious Nadella and Microsoft really are about "mobile first, cloud first." Obviously, the company doesn't exist to promote rival platforms, and to aid in their market power by bringing its best products to them in ways that make Microsoft's own mobile platforms less of a requirement. Perhaps Microsoft has simply moved from "Windows only" to "Windows first" to "well, it will always be better on Windows."
Or perhaps not.
In an appearance at an annual luncheon at the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce—which was nicely transcribed by Geekwire's Todd Bishop, thank you very much—Mr. Nadella was asked what he was doing to improve Windows Phone's market share, which is in the very low single digits and shows no signs of improving anytime soon.
Nadella didn't talk about "making the market" for Windows Phone. He didn't explain that many new hardware partners have signed on with Windows Phone thanks to "zero dollar" licensing in 2014, and that their devices would improve matters. He didn't vaguely speak of future synergies between Windows Phone and "big" Windows. Instead, he offered up a surprising response.
He said that Windows Phone's market share doesn't matter.
He said that Microsoft's broader goal is to deliver productivity experiences across all of the devices that people use. That you will find "Microsoft icons"—i.e. apps—on any phone. The goal, he said, was to ensure that platforms like Office, Skype, and others are broadly available everywhere.
Here's the relevant part of his answer.
"Devices and device sizes will come and go, even within a single year, you will be changing multiple phones," he said. "It's more about the mobility. In fact, if there's anything central to our vision, it's don't think of the device at the center, think of the individual, the people at the center. And then have the platforms and productivity experiences get built with that at the center.
So you will have many devices, you will have small devices, large devices, and devices that have not yet been created that will come in time. But what's going to be the constant? Your digital memories, your productivity experiences across all of those devices. That's really the center of how we think about innovating today and into the future.
And also we are very grounded on this cross-platform world. One of the things that you'll find is Microsoft icons on any phone—irrespective of whether it's a Windows Phone or not. That's our core goal: Things like Office, things like Skype are broadly available."
This confirms my previous notion that Microsoft's biggest contributions in this "mobile first, cloud first" era are mobile apps—irrespective of the hardware—and cloud services. And not its own hardware.
This is bad news for those who long for the "Windows only"/"Windows first" days of the past, or for those who would like to see Surface and Lumia become a bigger part of Microsoft's success story. But I don’t see Windows going away, and it will obviously continue to play a big role in the PC space especially. And while PCs are technically mobile devices, the volume part of this market is smart phones, which will outsell PCs by over 4-to-1 this year alone. Microsoft is right to focus on getting its platforms onto those devices that are really selling. In fact, it would be crazy to ignore this market.