Lessons From Microsoft’s Midlife Resurgence

Microsoft has spent the past year shaking off many perceptions about its products and corporate structure—particularly the company's willingness to play nice with others. As it turns 40 this month, the software giant offers a good reminder that there's always room to right the ship, no matter how old you are.

Microsoft did something last week that left my mouth agape.

To be honest, they didn’t really do anything. They just implied the kind of change that I never would have expected to be whispered in a room full of the company’s top brass, let alone put on the table as a real possibility.

Mark Russinovich, a leading engineer on the Windows platform, suggested that Microsoft was—for the first time—willing to consider open-sourcing some of the code that drives the operating system, the company’s biggest cash cow.

“It’s definitely possible,” Russinovich said during a conference last week. “It’s a new Microsoft.”

To use a crazy metaphor, this comment would be like the speaker of the House suggesting that the U.S. should try out communism for a little while, just out of curiosity. In another era, that kind of line could have cost Russinovich his job.

But looking at market realities, the suggestion honestly makes a lot of sense. Microsoft’s operating system is the only major OS that doesn’t rely on open-source parts. Even systems that are fairly closed to programmers, like iOS, still use basic parts from the ultimate open-source operating system, Unix.

But more fascinating, it reflects an effort by Microsoft to change its mentality.

Embracing the Unknown

Last week, I noted that the iPad just celebrated its fifth anniversary, but Microsoft  celebrated a more iconic and life-reassessing milestone: It just turned 40. For many people, your 40th birthday is a good reminder of all the things you haven’t done in your life. For Microsoft, it’s a good reminder that its software-heavy business model won’t last forever.

Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, who has largely stepped away from his work with the company, wrote a letter to employees discussing the next steps Microsoft could take as it moves forward.

“In the coming years, Microsoft has the opportunity to reach even more people and organizations around the world. Technology is still out of reach for many people, because it is complex or expensive, or they simply do not have access,” Gates wrote, according to CNET. “So I hope you will think about what you can do to make the power of technology accessible to everyone, to connect people to each other, and make personal computing available everywhere even as the very notion of what a PC delivers makes its way into all devices.”

In other words: In the long term, think beyond Windows.

Adapting to the Times

The thing about Microsoft that’s worth respecting in 2015 is that it’s managed to get away from the institutional hubris that for years appeared to benefit the company even as it hurt the computer industry as a whole.

Earlier this year, Microsoft raised eyebrows by announcing it would retire the Internet Explorer brand name and launch a new browser in its place—a product, at this juncture, called Project Spartan. Much like Windows, IE suffered from an institutional holding pattern, with new versions coming out only with new versions of Windows. This strategy was problematic when Mozilla Firefox was coming out with new versions every six months, but it looked downright self-defeating when Google Chrome started getting updates every couple of weeks.

As I’ve noted in the past, Microsoft took forever to offer versions of its Office suite for competing platforms like iOS and Android, to the point where it made me wonder whether it was even worth it. To Microsoft’s credit, it’s proved that (even with the late start) Office deserves a place on tablets that aren’t named Surface.

The company has at times struggled to embrace important computing trends. There’s a great anecdote from the early ’90s in which Microsoft added basic internet functionality to Windows only after Steve Ballmer, who had little knowledge of how the internet worked at the time, got sick of complaints from corporate clients. But it appears that, under current CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft has figured out that this strategy is a nonstarter.

Some of this may be attributable to weak leadership. Ballmer, who later became Microsoft’s CEO, was infamous for criticizing tech innovations like Linux, the iPhone, and the iPad, only to have to eat his words later as these technologies changed the fabric of modern computing.

The current change in attitude may be coming form a realization that working against modern computing trends in the name of protecting market share is just going to lead to a lot of long-term disappointment, especially as it ensures that innovations will come from somewhere else.

Despite its relative age, it’s worth noting Microsoft is younger than many of the associations that use its software.

(It’s good, too, to highlight Russinovich in this context. The engineer essentially got his high-ranking job with Microsoft by becoming a prominent critic of the Windows platform. Now he’s making Windows better.)

Forever Young?

Despite its age, it’s worth noting that Microsoft is younger than many of the associations that use its software. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, is more than a century old; AARP, founded in 1958, is nearing retirement age; and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) was founded in 1857.

These organizations have managed to stay relevant to their member bases despite their large size and decades of organizational complexity. You could argue that it’s partly because these groups face less competition than Microsoft does, but I’d like to argue it’s because they’ve been successful at adapting with the times.

In the March/April issue of Associations Now, Melanie D.G. Kaplan highlights three associations that launched within the past five years. They represent areas of the business world—marijuana policy, drones, and transgender individuals—that are relatively new. Because they’re new, they have the opportunity to try new things that older groups may never get a chance to.

Which means that most well-known associations are closer to Microsoft in general position. But it’s worth noting that even for associations whose legacies predate any current member, there’s still plenty of room to be innovative.

Case in point: In the 2014 Webby Awards, the winner of the fan pick for the best association website was another group that got its start within the past five years—the Internet Association. The year before, however? AIA won the honor. Not bad for an association that got its start before the Civil War.

As long as you have the right mindset, age ain’t nothing but a number. It took Microsoft a while to learn this, but your association doesn’t have to have the same problem.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella saying something his predecessor, Steve Ballmer, would have never said. (Handout photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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