Twenty years ago, when Bill Gates was serving his last year as CEO at Microsoft and the company’s stock price was still soaring, who would have thought Windows 98 would be the first of a long series of lame products that included a dead-end music player, a shunned smartphone and a hopeless search engine?
That same year, 1998, Apple launched the iMac, which was followed by the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, putting Apple on the road to becoming the most valuable global company and making it the “A” in FANG, the high-tech Facebook/Apple/Netflix/Google cabal changing the world. Microsoft, on the other hand, seldom came up in discussions about the future of technology.
Since Satya Nadella took charge of Microsoft in 2014, that discussion has started to change. In 2015, Microsoft’s share price hit a new high for the first time since 2000, and people started talking about a Microsoft renaissance. Of course, we’ve heard that before. Fast Company used the term in a 2009 story after Microsoft launched Bing. Billions of dollars in losses later, the search engine still struggles to be profitable.
So, is Microsoft really on the rise? The company’s decision to focus on the cloud and allow its products to operate on the devices and operating systems of other companies has paid handsome dividends. The cloud is generating $20 billion a year in revenue. And Office 365, now available on iPhone and Android, has been a massive hit, chalking up 150 million users. Windows 10 has also been a success, to the point that we now hear more complaints about Apple iPhone software glitches than about Microsoft Windows errors.
As if to celebrate its comeback, Microsoft recently announced plans to spend billions of dollars overhauling its Redmond campus by tearing down a dozen boxy old buildings and replacing them with towers that create an urban setting more accommodating of millennials. Word has it that the company has had such a huge infusion of young talent that, at least by some accounts, employees who joined the company during the past few years now account for as much as half of Microsoft’s employees.
Nadella also has a vision: He’s betting the company on technologies like augmented reality, artificial intelligence and hyperfast quantum computers that he thinks will change the world.
Does all this a renaissance make? It’s not a bad start.