The fall and rise of Microsoft

David Bartlett once predicted that Google would have bought Microsoft by 2015

As Premier of Tasmania in 2010, I was invited to visit many high-profile technology brands on the US west coast. It was during the heady days of Tasmania being the first state to roll out fibre to the premises - an agenda that would likely transform the island state economy forever.

Global interest in my home state as a living laboratory, providing a platform to launch, pilot and develop new high-speed broadband home, education and health applications, was running hot.

Alongside Google, Apple and Cisco, Microsoft invited me into its Seattle headquarters. Having built a strong relationship with the products and its people during my time as a CIO, I was thrilled with the idea of a visit. To say my expectations vastly exceeded the reality is an understatement. Indeed, I pompously predicted to one staffer on the flight home that Google will have bought Microsoft by 2015.

Microsoft has missed plenty of major disruptions in the technology space. Who can forget how a Gates-led Microsoft missed the coming of the Web and commodity Internet? Due only to sheer dominance was the company able to correct course and catch up.

Back in 2010, Microsoft had also missed mobility and the emerging BYOD trend, along with the emergence of personal and business cloud at enterprise-wide scale. It had completely missed social networks as a business application, new trends in the aesthetics of operating system design, and crucially, the home as the forefront of technology innovation.

But in inversely equal proportion to the decline of our country’s National Broadband Network vision of 2010, Microsoft is back on the top of the heap of enterprise, mobile and home platform leadership. (Author’s note: I have no financial or other dealings with Microsoft).

Just two years ago, as chairman of enterprise mobility software company, Asdeq Labs, my executives and I put little emphasis on Microsoft’s mobility play. The false start release of the original Surface devices and associated operating system was also a debacle.

Now, we have the opposite view. With Windows 10 and the Surface 3, Microsoft is forcing competitors to snap at its heels once more.

But even Steve Ballmer admits he nearly missed the boat. He has been reported as saying: “And the company paid a price for bad work. I put the A-team resources on Longhorn, not on phones or browsers. All our resources were tied up on the wrong thing”.

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What he missed was a tectonic shift in computing. Not just in terms of technology shrinking to pocket and folder sized devices, but what it meant to win in that environment against much more agile competitors who, for the first time in history, also had huge resources to go to war with. To use political language, Microsoft was being attacked from the left by innovators in Google and Apple, and on the right by new enterprise platform players as disparate as HP and Salesforce.

However, key acquisitions and recent investments into genuine in-house innovation signals a new, leading approach.

The Skype, Yammer, Mojang, Nokia and Greenbutton acquisitions are great symbols of Microsoft’s thinking in the new computing paradigm. And stay tuned for Microsoft’s plans as the proud new owner of Minecraft: My prediction is there’s more than gaming on the company’s mind and we will see the start of serious application of virtual worlds for business and enterprise applications.

In addition, the sleek yet functional interface demonstrated with Windows 10 marks not just a turning point for Microsoft, but a turnaround. Microsoft no longer appears to be content protecting the base, to use a political term. By augmenting a solid user base in enterprise platforms and back-end infrastructure with new computing in home, mobile and cloud, Microsoft is more than back in the game.

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Windows 10 is designed to work across all Windows devices underpinning your PC, tablet, phone and even Xbox, which is a monumental win for Microsoft. With it, the company will recapture the user ecosystem lost to Apple and Google. And if it continues on this course, it will be Microsoft’s undoubted enterprise credentials that take it beyond the reach of competitors for another decade.

One Seattle-based Microsoft insider told me recently there is a new buzz inside the company. “People want to work here again and they are proud to no longer be playing catch up after half a decade of decline,” he said.

Write Microsoft off at your peril.

David Bartlett is a former premier of Tasmania and one-time CIO. He is chairman of Asdeq Labs and works with communities on the NBN through Explor Digital Futures.

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