Why Nadella is the right CEO for Microsoft in an age of big data and bigger platforms

Anyone questioning Microsoft’s decision to appoint Satya Nadella as CEO should really read this job listing. It’s for a deep learning position at, working within the Kindle division on computer vision. Or maybe this one, for a senior software engineer in the Amazon Web Services gaming team who’s familiar with advanced machine learning techniques.

Microsoft is still very much a platform company, but its competitors are a whole lot bigger, badder and cloudier than in the desktop days of yore. It needs someone at the helm who understands how modern platforms are built and will evolve. With years running Bing and Windows Azure under his belt, Nadella is that person.

Structure 2012: Satya Nadella - President, Server and Tools Business, Microsoft
Satya Nadella at Structure 2012.

No disrespect to other candidates whose names were floated around, such as Ford CEO Alan Mulally, but taking on General Motors is not preparation for taking on Google.

We’ve covered Microsoft’s focus on machine learning before, but it bears repeating in the wake of Nadella’s appointment. Some pundits and analysts are suggesting that Microsoft unload various divisions, including Bing. That would be a terrible idea.

structuredata2014_300x200_editpost2Bing is a source of tremendous knowledge for Microsoft. It gives the company an understanding of how to build webscale systems, which informs the architectures of the Windows Azure cloud platform and various systems software products. More importantly, it gives Microsoft a tremendous amount of data to analyze.

That data and those systems are the stuff that powers capabilities such as speech recognition on the Xbox and Windows phones, and translation APIs for Windows developers. Bing is the engine behind autocomplete in new business intelligence products, and any number of other data analysis or data-based features that Microsoft might want to incorporate even into its business software. If you think Kinect will be limited to the Xbox or even to its current set of gestures for long, think again.

If all the pieces come together like they should, Microsoft has a platform that should span whatever devices its customers are using — including their smart homes. The more capabilities it offers to developers, the better apps they can build. The better the apps, in theory, the more that consumers will want to buy products running the Windows operating system.

Touchscreen telepresence is just one area where many technologies converge. Source: Microsoft
Touchscreen telepresence is just one area where many technologies converge. Source: Microsoft

It is the exact model Google is pushing with Android, and Amazon appears ready to launch something similar across its battery of business lines. The pitch: Build apps, games or whatever, and run them on our cloud computing services and deliver them on our platforms. We’ll give you all the APIs and SDKs you need to add more powerful features and analyze what your users are doing.

Even Facebook, which doesn’t have the range of products or operating systems of its larger peers gets how this works. It’s building out its platform almost as an alternative OS for users, where everything they need to communicate, play games, share and consume content is available on Facebook. It knows that the data it gathers from its core social network service is critical to adding intelligence across everything else it adds to the mix. Need help building or hosting a Facebook app? Give Parse a look.

Microsoft’s future isn’t about Windows Azure, Office, Bing, Windows Phone or Xbox — it’s about all of them as functioning, as much as they can, as a cohesive experience. Any company trying to do business on the internet has to understand what pieces it has, what else it needs and how they all integrate to form something bigger than a sum of its parts. Otherwise, it’s going to watch Google, Amazon and Facebook eat its lunch.

Maybe it turns out Nadella isn’t the right person for the job, but his résumé looks like the right one.