Satya Nadella is a spider.
Throw out all the negative connotations usually associated with the term. Instead, focus on what a spider does: It sits at the center of a web, stroking and sensing the minute vibrations that run up the hundreds of strands, analyzing their meaning and what they reveal about the external world.
For the last several years, most if not all of the data that flows through Microsoft's services business — which fans out, like a web, to over a billion connected devices — has flowed through Nadella's cloud services and the analytics software that monitor and control them. It's Nadella who's kept Microsoft's own data centers online. And it's he who's assisted partners; overseen the languages and development environments; made sure app developers have had the tools they need; and ensured that Skype, Bing and Xbox Live are up and running.
Although Nadella had been considered the heir presumptive last week, on Tuesday Microsoft made it official, naming Nadella chief executive. Bill Gates, the company's founder, will step down from his role as chairman, ceding the position to director John Thompson. Gates will now devote additional time to the company as technology adviser.
So what will Microsoft look like under Satya Nadella? Nadella's somewhat staid, stay-the-course philosophy probably indicates a conservative tack: In the short term, he'll likely follow the direction set by retiring chief executive Steve Ballmer. "We have picked a set of high-value activities as part of our One Microsoft strategy," Nadella wrote in a letter to employees. "And with every service and device launch going forward we need to bring more innovation to bear around these scenarios."
Nadella knows data, and that will be his strength in his new role. At Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference last year, Nadella described data as the "foundational, fundamental driver of your business activity." Nadella probably knows exactly how many users use Office 365, as well as the bandwidth demands that the Halo franchise puts on Xbox Live.
But does his understanding go beyond the abstract — how educators and digital publishers work with Office and Microsoft Azure, or what makes an Xbox game great? If you're Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, you may not be expected to know how your customers use Noxema. But this is Microsoft, where founder Bill Gates notoriously ripped apart products before they hit the market. Can Nadella do the same, or will he turn Microsoft into Google North?
In his letter, Nadella set forth his mission statement: "We are the only ones who can harness the power of software and deliver it through devices and services that truly empower every individual and every organization," he wrote. "We are the only company with history and continued focus in building platforms and ecosystems that create broad opportunity.
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