When Did Microsoft Become So Cool?
Microsoft has long been viewed as the grandfather of IT innovation. There is great nostalgia to be found in the chime sounds accompanied with the Windows 95 start-up music, later modernised to a space odyssey reminiscent riff in '98.
This was Microsoft’s original period of being cool – best exhibited in the following video from the Windows 95 launch. Click here.
However, in the late '90s, as other technology companies turned their focus to form over function, and superimposed this with marketing messages that focused on the human experience of IT, Microsoft’s era of being cool-ish came to a swift end, buried in a stockpile of redundant floppy discs. But we mentally held onto the command 'control alt delete', just in case we might need it one day.
In the 2000s, by and large, Microsoft products were seen as something used exclusively in the business setting – a place less focused on sleek design and rather, getting things done. Word, PowerPoint, and Excel still had a monopoly in the realm of productivity tools, with attempts to steal the market being quashed by a preference for familiarity. But aside from the paperclip man pop up helper (which at the time was extremely annoying, but is now a novelty somewhat missed), Microsoft software was far from cool. It was a support service for the productivity engine of 9 to 5 office life.
Fast forward to Inspire 2018. Microsoft becomes cool again – and it’s not just a result of the advances in technology. Microsoft and other technology companies all have similar abilities to harness innovation. But what we all saw at Inspire was that Microsoft has done it incredibly well – so well it almost appears effortless. So, when did Microsoft start becoming cool again? What was the tipping point? Here are a few thoughts based on what we saw at Inspire 2018.
The Stories of Success
There was a huge focus on customer success this year. The stories were not necessarily focused on product advocacy, but rather, they were focused on enablement. CEOs, CIOs and CFOs talked about how modern workplace software, Cloud computing, AI and beyond, has helped them do what they do better. IT was positioned as a business differentiator. Often customer success stories are focused on the what’s and how’s of implementation. This year, Microsoft took a deep dive into the why. Why transform? Why this technology? And if there was a what, what does it empower you to do better than anyone else? These proof points across industries and business sizes were dotted throughout the core notes and provided a stream of both reassurance and great excitement. It showed that Microsoft was indeed living up to its mantra, 'to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.
Take a look at this video they produced for SAGlobal Customer Chemonics for one of many examples! - Click here.
Every story and every announcement was progressive. There was an undercurrent of making the world better, without being too preachy about it. Inspire didn’t come across as smoke in mirrors. It led by true examples of digital transformation excellence and a very, very bright future for it.
The Tackling of Contemporary Issues
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been in the media spotlight this past year, with growing concerns over its ethical use emerging as a key topic of conversation. Microsoft took a risk in tackling this subject head-on at Inspire, speaking in great length about data for good, security and compliance as well as the positive capabilities enabled by AI. It was a risk worth taking. AI is indeed a double-edged sword but when it’s used ethically, the potential is incredible. The fact that Microsoft enables compliant practices through the Cloud was a touchpoint revisited in almost every speech. This social consciousness coupled with what AI can enable organisations to do was very cool.
The Open Invitation to Innovate
The partnership between Microsoft and vendors has been a focal point for many years. However, this year, the importance of that relationship for enabling Microsoft products to reach their full potential in various markets, was highlighted repetitively. We were given an open invitation to innovate. With the Intelligent Cloud and its applications in the real world (dubbed the ‘Intelligent Edge’) comes the capacity to extend solutions, particularly those based on Microsoft Dynamics 365. As Microsoft continues to build on this through elements like AppSource, the Common Data Service and PowerApps, partners and change-makers within organisations have been encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity to build industry-first solutions. If you’d like your heartstrings to be tugged, skip to the end of Satya Nadella’s day three core note to watch the story of a security officer at Heathrow International Airport who built a PowerApp to reduce paperwork. This is the exact stroke of genius that Microsoft seeks to develop beyond their own organisation.
Microsoft Inspire is always a stage for excitement. But this year had a particular ambience which just made it that little bit better – even as someone watching it on-demand from afar. Women and men were both represented on the centre stage for their key roles, not only in Microsoft but also in the IT industry and among customers. Diversity at Microsoft and in the Partner Network was brought up but not dwelled on, summarised by their belief that in order to be an organisation which seeks to help the real world, they need to represent the real world themselves. There wasn't a song and dance made about inclusivity, but it was practised and didn't go unnoticed.
The Humble Satya Nadella Moment
At the beginning of Satya Nadella’s core note, he made a statement about what he tells graduates who start working at Microsoft. He stated, ‘I tell them, if you want to be cool, go join somebody else. If you want to make others cool, come join Microsoft.’ This truly humble moment when Nadella proclaims to millions that working at Microsoft isn’t cool, is perhaps one of the most profoundly cool things to happen in the company’s history. Microsoft’s ‘coolness’ truly lays with its dedication to empowering organisations to do incredible things, using the tools they provide. It’s hard to pinpoint where the tipping point for Microsoft’s Renaissance was. Maybe it was when Nadella took the helm, maybe it was when they coined the digital transformation story, but one thing is for sure – when that humble sentence from Nadella echoed around the stadium, and the crowd cheered, we all knew something for sure: Microsoft was indeed cooler than they ever were before that moment – even if they didn’t want to admit it themselves.