How Ballmer's "One Microsoft" vision is already changing the company

Credit: Microsoft

The recent Microsoft reorg is supposed to make One Microsoft Way more than just the company's address. When I spoke to several executives and product teams recently, they volunteered multiple examples of how it's working for them -- and how it fits in with the "devices and services" approach that has replaced Microsoft's previous strategy of building platforms like Windows and Office and Xbox.

For Nadella, the One Microsoft reorg is formalizing the way his division was working anyway, taking the underlying Windows core features, building them into Windows Server and Azure, then shipping Azure features like the service bus and the portal interface in Windows Server as the Azure Pack. Or taking Office and SQL Server and creating Office 365 and Power BI.

"This 'One Microsoft' reorg is fantastic in terms of us not having any notions of who controls what. I can talk about everything across Office 365, Dynamics CRM, the Windows Server products and Azure. Server is very much part of my org but that's immaterial because some of the components like the hypervisor itself are in the core OS, but the entire server gets put together."

That makes Microsoft more agile, he believes. "This notion of being able to decouple engineering efforts and what our marketing and business model is. Categories are going to rapidly shift. What is a developer product, what is an IT product, what Is an end user product -- they all have to be rethought. So we think about this as one unified engineering effort and one unified go to market effort, and especially with consumerisation that becomes even more important."

For Dan Plastina, a Microsoft veteran who's in charge of the Azure rights management service that's currently in preview, the reorg is like going back to the Microsoft of years ago.

"The early era Microsoft was very cohesive. Now we have a renewed focus and it's nice to see a large-scale 'One Microsoft' view. For example, I'm leading the planning across Microsoft for information protection; that includes the strategy for the File Classification Infrastructure in Windows Server, Exchange, SharePoint, Office, the way we’re protecting content in structured storage in SQL Azure, MDM integration… We're getting very serious about having One Microsoft story that's about solving the problem end to end. People are so invigorated by this."

The new approach makes it much easier to measure how well a project is doing, he believes. "My job is to make sure people can collaborate securely and it's really easy to see if that's succeeding. Are people using it? Are partners adopting it? I can ask 'how come iOS hasn't integrated it yet? Why isn't Adobe using it?'"

Talking to Dave Campbell, the CTO of the cloud and enterprise team, it becomes clear that Microsoft's cloud services have driven a lot of these changes, as you might expect from services that have to be updated every few weeks rather than every few years. "This blurring between enterprise and consumer is much of what's developed in the online services division in the last ten years around how we use machine learning," said Campbell. But it hasn't happened in quite the way you might expect -- and it could have much wider implications than just reducing the number of similar-but-different products Microsoft offers, say from five sync solutions to one.

The machine learning expertise in Microsoft Research that lets Kinect recognize both your voice and your body position is also what's improved the quality of Bing's search results to the point that -- at least in blind studies and especially among older users -- they're more popular than Google's results. Now that's relevant in business as well.

Search relies on looking at user behavior to see what results and information is useful; Bing uses more than 200 'signals' to evaluate the value of a link. "In the context of business we have an amazing set of signals as well," Campbell says. "It's like 'Bing for business' if you will. If you're using SharePoint, we're able to reason over who you've shared things with. We've hired a number of machine learning experts who've worked on ad systems because the same techniques can be used for both sets of signals. We're melding what had been consumer and business technology."

He's bullish about the potential of this. "We aspire to make everyone 15 to 20% more efficient." Some of that comes from your devices making your services better (yet another reason for Microsoft to have both): "The devices I carry around will be learning from context and using sensors. The more data we have in the back end, the more accurate the OCR can be…" Although he points out the privacy issues of big data -- both what companies can learn about you and the fact that you might end up getting a worse deal than someone else because of patterns derived from big data that suggest you're a bigger risk -- he also sees the opportunity to mine your data on your behalf.

"So much representation of what we need to do in life is recorded digitally somewhere: My appointments at the doctor, my flight itineraries. But they're not set up in a way to serve us. We should be able to reason across all of this and the actions I can take on this digital events should make sense; I can move a meeting, but I can't change my flight departure time in the same way. These scenarios will define the cloud OS in the future -- and that's why I'm enthusiastic about Microsoft. You're going to need great services and great devices."

Campbell is realistic about the fact that One Microsoft doesn't mean all Microsoft all the time. "Those services will need to project out to all devices, whether they're ours or a third party's." But like Nadella, he started to see the One Microsoft principles happening inside the company long before the reorg was announced.

When he was a technical fellow working on SQL Server, one of his team members left to become the architect of what became Bing. "Eight years ago we would run into each other and it was if we lived on different continents. Five years ago the scenarios started to meld. Three years ago Hadoop started to take off. Now we spend a tremendous amount of time together again. What has been driving the consumer experience and consumer services and what the needs of business are -- it's the same machinery."

Not everyone shares this enthusiasm, but if the same synchronicities happen for enough of Microsoft's different products, across devices and services, then more of Microsoft's famously internecine business units could get the hang of working together as if they were in the same company.

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