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4 reasons Microsoft is a new company

Mike Elgan | April 7, 2014
There's no question that today's Microsoft is a whole new company. Many of the changes announced under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella were initiated under his predecessor, Steve Ballmer. But it's clear that it's a whole new Microsoft.

This is another indication of a new kind of Microsoft, one interested in cultivating the hacker, maker and educational communities.

3. Free software

Microsoft has always charged whatever the market would bear, and sometimes more. But Windows for the Internet of Things, it turns out, is free.

Windows Phone 8.1 will include a voice-activated digital assistant called Cortana.

Astonishingly, the company also announced this week that it will give away Windows Phone for free to handset makers, but only for consumer devices nine inches and smaller. (Microsoft used to charge between $5 and $15 for each device.)

4. Transparency (Cortana notebook)

Microsoft this week unveiled a virtual assistant feature for Windows Phone called Cortana. Broadly comparable to Apple's Siri and Google Now, Cortana listens to your natural language queries, then responds with an answer, an action or some other result.

Like Siri, Cortana has a "personality." Like Google Now, Cortana interrupts you with incoming information that's personalized.

But unlike both Siri and Google Now, Cortana is extremely transparent in what it knows about you, and in what it's set up to do.

This transparency exists in a feature of Cortana called the Notebook. It's basically a document that stores all the personal information Cortana knows about you. For example, it might know your spouse's name is Tyler, so you can place a call on Windows Phone by saying, "Call Tyler." If you simply delete that information from the Notebook, Cortana will "forget" the name.

You can also add personal information as easily as you can delete it.

It's not so much that Cortana has this cool and unique feature. It's that Microsoft is embracing a pretty radical form of end-user transparency, besting even Google in that department, at least in the case of virtual assistant technology.

When you add up Microsoft's historically uncharacteristic embrace of the iPad, makers, free software and data transparency, the sum is a refreshing new company — one no longer stuck in the past and clinging to obsolete models that no longer work or that never worked.

Surprising announcements coming out of Microsoft give me new hope that the company can completely turn around and emerge from the Steve Ballmer dark ages to embrace the future.


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