Microsoft Hits Refresh – What it means for you

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s recently released book “Hit Refresh” paints an interesting and insightful picture of the company’s transformation-in-progress both cultural and strategic. It also reflects what Microsoft showed to customers and partners at the showpiece Envision conference in Orlando, Florida, two months ago. (Indeed, the story woven through the conference seems clearly aligned with the story Nadella has told in his book.)

Once a year, Microsoft's Envision conference provides an opportunity for customers and partners to get "the big picture" of where the organisation is heading, and how technology is enabling fascinating new human endeavours. Both Nadella’s book and his conference keynote address highlighted the company’s major twofold shift in recent times - initially of culture, and - most recently - of strategic vision.

Regarding culture, Nadella describes Microsoft's as a transformation in progress, one driven by the company’s need to embrace new opportunities as their traditional markets and products dwindled. This transformation has focused on freeing and entreating all employees to connect their most personal passions with what they do inside Microsoft - from the board on down. This connection between personal and corporate passion has borne fruit including inspiring and life-changing tools such as Microsoft's reading tools that open the world of literature to dyslexic children, and a watch that helps those with Parkinsons - tools born out of "Hackathons" that allow staff dedicated time to work collaboratively on their passion projects. 

As Nadella recounts, the company whose initial vision of “a computer on every desktop” was built on enabling people to achieve more has “hit refresh” to reconnect this original vision to a world of ubiquitous computing and crowdsourced passion projects. And the shift in culture has paralleled and equipped major strategic shifts to cloud computing and new business models.  

Regarding such strategic shifts, while Microsoft's vision remains one of helping every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more (and strictly speaking, off the planet - given the use of HoloLens headsets in the International Space Station), 2017 has been a notable year for the company's move away from its "cloud first and mobile first" strategy to one of best-in-class productivity tools for "an intelligent cloud and intelligent edge".

This intelligent cloud and intelligent edge reflect the accelerating infusion of Artificial Intelligence into the devices and services we all use in everyday life. From digital assistants in phones or home devices, to smart light bulbs or appliances, to internet-connected fitness devices, to connected cars - devices are not only internet-connected to intelligence-imbued cloud computing, but - with the growing power of devices - also contain their own elements of artificial intelligence.

This focus on an intelligent cloud and intelligent edge also notes the centricity of human experience to this new model. As a recent Microsoft video notes, "We live in a world of mobile technology, but it is not the device that is mobile. It is you." And where this used to mean mobile phones, our experience of computing is increasingly involving so many other devices and connections - in fact, Gartner notes that by 2020, 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen. Similarly, one of Microsoft’s top technical fellows Alex Kipman believes the age of the smartphone is over, noting "the phone is already dead" (we just don't yet realise it).

Microsoft's strategy is playing out in three big bets over the next years: mixed reality, artificial intelligence and quantum computing. With 99% of human perception coming from speech and vision, this makes a lot of sense. The more personal computing experience we'll all be having over the next years will increasingly rely on AI that enables computers we interact with to perceive our person, intent and emotions. What's fascinating (and maybe slightly perturbing?) is that these capabilities are already here and available for you and I to take and use as we see fit. And right now, they're even baked into some of the Microsoft products we interact with every day. Moreover, Nadella is quick to note the critical role of empathy when developing AI, and the role of AI being to augment human capability - not replace it. Another inspiring example: the Seeing AI prototype, to help the blind.

We will focus more in Microsoft's three big bets in coming blog articles. However, both we (as partners) and our customers should be excited and inspired by what's becoming possible, and what this will mean for our ability to achieve in both work and personal passions, and - ideally - the meeting and mingling of both.

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