CEO Satya Nadella’s Microsoft Presents New Competition for Apple

MSFT CEO Satya Nadella

On February 4th, 2014, Satya Nadella, already a long-time Microsoft senior executive, took over as only Microsoft’s third CEO in its history.

MSFT CEO Satya Nadella

In contrast to the avuncular, intellectual co-founder Bill Gates and the bombastic Steve Ballmer, Satya Nadella possesses a strong technial background with experience in servers, distributed computing, Bing and Azure. Right away, he brought his 20+ year experience at Microsoft to bear thinking about how to understand the soul of Microsoft and better lead the company.

My own writings about Mr. Nadella since 2014 have been very positive. Right away, I recognized that this new CEO was changing the face of the company, making new kinds of decisions and exerting a special kind of technical and human leadership.

In February of 2015, I wrote: “How Apple’s Resurgence Led to Microsoft’s Newfound Success.” There, I wrote:

I like a lot about Microsoft today. It’s fierce legal fight for the privacy of its users is a breath of fresh air. The technical vision of Mr. Nadella has left the obsessive, destructive past of Steven Sinofsky’s “Windows Everywhere” behind. Over the past year, Microsoft has found its sense of proportion and direction.

This year, I continued my very positive observations in: “A Glimpse Into Microsoft’s Future.

One of the very first things CEO Nadella did was to recognize that whether desktop or mobile, whether Linux, macOS or Windows, customers have characteristic needs for productivity and communication tools. And so, he released the completed (but withheld) Microsoft Office for iPad in March of 2014.  Soon we learned of the Ubuntu shell in Windows 10. Joy ensued.

I won’t recount all the changes CEO Nadella has made, but one that punctuates the new spirit of Microsoft is the Surface Studio announced in October of 2016. It appears to have stunned Apple, and amongst observers, I wasn’t alone in my admiration for Microsoft’s new, gutsy, customer-oriented approach to technology. “Microsoft Just Announced the iPad I Always Wanted – Surface Studio.

Microsoft Surface Studio

All of a sudden, it looked like Microsoft was the company in search of our hearts. even as the poor Mac was languishing, neglected. Apple has had to scramble to recover. More Microsoft surprises may await.

Hit Refresh

Nadella's book: Hit RefreshA few weeks ago, one of my readers sent me a copy (iBooks) of Mr. Nadella’s new book “Hit Refresh.” There, Mr. Nadella tells the story of his career, his ascendancy to the CEO job, and the values and experiences he has brought to bear in his new leadership role. I devoured it with joy as I discovered, from page to page, the character of the man who was making all these changes that I so admired and had been writing about.

At the outset, Mr. Nadella talks about leadership and listening to the customers. From Chapter 2, on leadership:


Leadership means making choices and then rallying the team around those choices.” …

A leader must see the external opportunities and the internal capability and culture—and all of the connections among them—and respond to them before they become obvious parts of the conventional wisdom. It’s an art form, not a science.

In Chapter 3, author Nadella recounts how he started from square one to rediscover the soul of Microsoft. The company had grown up and prospered with Windows and Office, but the modern evolution of mobility and the internet, combined with the abject failure of Windows Phone and Windows 8, showed that new customer needs and new technologies required his company to figure out what kind of company Microsoft wanted to be in the 21st century.

Along the way, author Nadella reveals that he’s an admirer of the most basic principles of modern technology and design.

Steve Jobs understood what the soul of a company is. He once said that ‘design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.’ I agree. Apple will always remain true to its soul as long as its inner voice, its motivation, is about great design for consumer products.

As the new CEO starts to formulate his own ideas of the soul of Microsoft, he wrote:

To my first question, why does Microsoft exist, the message was loud and clear. We exist to build products that empower others…

We need to be insatiable in our desire to learn from the outside and bring that learning into Microsoft, while still innovating to surprise and delight our users.

That means, of course, no matter what the customer’s computing platform of choice is. To drive the point home, Nadella opens Chapter 5 with a story that punctuates his leadership approach.

There was an audible gasp and more than a smattering of chuckles in the auditorium when I reached into my suit jacket and pulled out an iPhone. No one in recent memory had seen a Microsoft CEO showing off an Apple product. Especially not at a competitor’s sales conference.

“This is a pretty unique iPhone,” I told attendees at Salesforce’s annual marketing event as the crowd quieted down.

On the giant screen behind me, a close-up of the phone appeared. One by one, the app icons flashed into view—iPhone versions of Microsoft classics like Outlook, Skype, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint as well as newer mobile applications like Dynamics, OneNote, OneDrive, Sway, and Power BI. The crowd erupted in applause.

Seeing me demo Microsoft software on an iPhone designed and built by Apple, one of our toughest, longest-standing competitors, was surprising and even refreshing.

Next Page: The story continues. Competing with Apple.

9 thoughts on “CEO Satya Nadella’s Microsoft Presents New Competition for Apple

  • In the past, Apple had an easy time competing with Microsoft in the consumer market. Microsoft’s vision was conflicted. A fixation on Windows shackled the company. Mr. Ballmer didn’t appear, outwardly, to indicate that he understood Microsoft’s deepest problems, both in product vision, customer focus, and internal organizational structure and leadership. The company followed Apple like a fawning puppy dog…


    I would argue that it is more like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; an apt analogy given MS’s genesis and early relationship with Apple. The envy and resentment was palpable, as was the urge to hurt if not destroy, certainly on Ballmer’s end. What is evident is that this maladaptive behaviour on MS’s part was due, almost entirely, to a lack both internal vision and direction and indeed, purpose. ‘Windows everywhere’ is not a purpose, but an aspiration, and an unwholesome one to be sure. A monoculture in any ecosphere, including PC’s and the ecology supporting them, is an aberration to be avoided at all costs, not simply because by stifling diversity, it prohibits choice, but more importantly, it stifles creativity and innovation – in a word – the ingredients to adaptation and more evolved solutions, and ultimately, a better user experience. Whatever the short term gains, a monoculture is a costly recipe for a loss in freedom and the natural course of progress.

    Back to your article, the old MS liked what it saw in Apple, and envied Apple’s every innovation. Simply because MS had beat Apple in PC marketshare, they felt entitled and ‘manifestly destined’ to do so in any and every sphere into which Apple ventured and showed how it could be done. MS felt that they could simply doggedly follow and destroy Apple’s gains, and supplant it with the MS variant. And why not, they had superior PC market share, right?

    What no one in MS’s leadership appeared to understand prior to Nadella was that, despite the apparent victory in PC marketshare, MS and Apple were not direct competitors in terms of products and businesses. It would be as if, amongst athletes, a specialist in the 200 metres who could outrun a decathlete in the same event felt that he could also naturally beat him in the javelin, the long jump and anything else that decathlete might do. Or imagine some bloke in the neighbourhood gym who can bench press more than you then assuming that he can be better at whatever profession it is that you do. This would be thought distortion bordering on the delusional. Back to competitive athletics as a metaphor for competitive business, any fighter who starts imitating his opponents fighting style, without ever having practised it or understanding it, will lose that fight.

    Nadella clearly understands that, simply following another company from product to product, particularly when your company has never demonstrated that skill set, is not a plan, but evidence of a its absence, and a lack of an endogenous vision and internal guidance. He has moved, ably, to correct that, first by creating MS’s own vision from which their own plans will derive.

    Personally, I still do not see Apple and MS as direct competitors on most emerging products and services – a few to be sure, such as AI, sort of. Even in things like cloud services, their products sufficient differ such that they can harmoniously co-exist. Rather, I see far more opportunity for synergy, and beyond commensalism to true symbiosis, not simply to the benefit of each company, but far more importantly, to the benefit of an expanding global user base.

  • The two biggest threats to Apple (in order) are:

    Jony Ive – his extremely unhealthy obsession with thinness even when it means sacrificing functionality (ex: the non-functional awful keyboards on the new MBP’s) is ruining so many formerly great products.
    Craig Federighi – I don’t know why so many people have a man-crush on him … the software quality at Apple has dropped precipitously since Bertrand Serlet left and he took over.

    Microsoft would be – at best – a very distant third.

    Old UNIX Guy

  • Who after living with Windows for 20 years (at work, not by choice) with its endless every-other-day vulnerability updates and technical issues would ever buy a Microsoft product for their personal use. Not me – ever.

  • Yes it will be a good thing. I’ve sensed more than a bit of complacency, of smugness, from Cupertino in recent years. MS went from one disaster to another, XP forever, Vista, XBox Ring of Death, WinPhone, Win8, and on and on. Apple could beat them without half trying. At first it was great, Apple could be more creative and think out of the “beige” box. But after a while we started getting things like the Mac hiatus and spiraling price increases, and weird car projects, etc. MS is back and it will make Apple focus on quality and what made them good. I have no intention of buying a Windows system, but the competition will make Apple better.

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