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Microsoft’s Mac Moment: What Satya Nadella is learning from Apple’s comeback

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. (GeekWire File Photo)

With Microsoft in the midst of its big Worldwide Partner Conference in Orlando, Fla., CEO Satya Nadella is taking the opportunity to provide more detail about where he plans to take the company next. Immediately after his keynote address Monday morning, Nadella sat down for an extended interview with Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet, explaining and elaborating on the vision he’s laid out in a series of recent memos to Microsoft employees.

One key question: What does Microsoft’s decision to bring new focus to its phone business say about the company’s overall strategy?

In the ZDNet interview, Nadella used an interesting comparison to explain how he views the situation: “You’ve got to remember even the Apple regeneration started with colorful iMacs. So let us first get the colorful iMacs. I think with what we’re doing with Lumia, we’re at that stage. I want to do good devices that people like, and then we will go on to doing the next thing and the next thing.”

Former Microsoft CTO David Vaskevitch

It’s probably no coincidence that a very similar comparison was made by David Vaskevitch, the former Microsoft CTO, when we asked him for his thoughts about the company’s future on last week’s GeekWire radio show. Vaskevitch left the company several years ago and currently runs his own photo startup Mylio, but he worked at Microsoft for 23 years and still sees Nadella on a regular basis.

“I think he’s done an amazing job in his first year,” Vaskevitch said. “I think the true test, though, is still ahead.”

Vaskevitch explained, “Microsoft is in no danger of going broke. It’s in no danger of some competitor coming along and making it disappear. Those things are just not issues. So, if the question is, ‘Will there be a Microsoft with a huge revenue base, strongly profitable, five or 10 years from now?’ that’s not a question.”

“The primary issue the company faces — and I see that myself, I hear it from customers, and I hear it from people inside the company — is increasing irrelevance. People use Office, but they don’t think about it. People use Windows, they don’t think about it.”

This is where the comparison to Apple comes into play. Here’s how Vaskevitch put it on the show.

Say Steve Jobs had come back to Apple and not succeeded in saving the Mac. Then he would have never had a chance to do all of the rest of the things he did. People forget how difficult saving the Mac was. He had to completely replace the operating system, there were years during which it didn’t work. He went from those funny colored Macs to really exciting Macs. Suppose that’s all he had done. Nobody would be talking about him. Apple would be another successful, profitable company that had become increasingly not relevant.

What really put Steve on the map was first saving the company, and making all those products ship on a better basis and so on — all those things Satya is doing. And then saying, first I’m going to do the iPod, then the iPhone. Don’t forget, along the way he did the Apple Stores, and the iTunes Music Store, and then he did the iPad. Each one of those was a fundamentally new product, a fundamentally new entry in the market. That’s what made Apple exciting and relevant as well as strong and profitable.

In other words, the key thing isn’t what Nadella is doing now with Windows, and the rest of Microsoft’s products, but how the current moves position the company for “the next thing, and the next thing” — whatever they turn out to be.

Click here to listen to the full show with Vaskevitch, and play an extended clip of Vaskevitch’s comments about Microsoft below.

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