Interview: How Bing, Cortana and machine learning will redefine Redmond.
With the Surface tablet and the recent acquisition of Nokia, you’d be forgiven for thinking Microsoft had become a hardware company.
And with Azure’s entry into the cloud pricing war, you’d even be excused for assuming Redmond was now focusing on the cloud.
But with Bing, Skype and more recently Cortana all forming parts of the tech giant’s portfolio, no-one could blame you for being confused over what Microsoft considers its core business to be.
Step forward then, chief envisioning officer Dave Coplin, the Microsoft executive whose role is "pulling all these disparate pieces together" to try and tell us exactly what the 38-year-old company is up to these days.
The answer? Well, it’s not Office and Windows anymore.
"This is such a crucial time for Microsoft," he says. "We are and have been for the last couple of years really trying to pivot our business to move away from these silos of Windows and Office and all that type of stuff and into this world of experiences."
This sums up the first six months of CEO Satya Nadella’s reign, during which he has pushed a mobile-first, cloud-first strategy that’s seen Microsoft open up its services to competitors.
The most striking example of this is the introduction of Office for iPad in March, which topped the most popular apps list on the App Store with 12 million downloads in its first week.
"At heart we’re a software company," says Coplin. "We’ve come to realise that devices are crucial, but not in a binary way. It’s not all or nothing."
So, while Redmond’s expensive acquisition of Nokia’s handset business at the start of the year was a big step to move into the mobile space, after being left behind by the likes of Apple, Microsoft is more interested in it as a place to put its Windows Phone operating system.
"Where we’re going software will continue to be the chief point of innovation," he says. "The real transformation, the ‘wow’ stuff, I do believe is going to come from the software."
War of the ecosystems
That’s consistent with the fact Microsoft is busy building out its ecosystem at the moment through Surface, Lumia phone, Xbox – syncing via the cloud, and it’s clear the tech giant is keen to develop its own device network to rival that of Apple and Google.
And Coplin says it is this synchronisation, rather than the devices themselves, that will help Microsoft in the marketplace.
He says: "Increasingly as an organisation that’s the story we’ve got to tell our customers, because that’s going to resonate much more with them than selling them on phone alone or Windows or Office."
As an example, he explains how the search engine Bing is able to link to his Xbox and play music he requests.
"I’ve got an Xbox in my kitchen and tonight I’ll say ‘Xbox, Bing ‘The Clash’ and now I’ve got a search engine curating the music experience on my games console," he explains. But he maintains that Microsoft is also focused on being more open than its competitors.
"What I see at the moment is there’s this war of ecosystems. There’s the Apple ecosystem and Google ecosystem and the Microsoft ecosystem," he tells us.
"But what I love about our platform is, yes we’re making our ecosystem as brilliant as it could be, but we don’t stop at the boundary of our ecosystem, we bleed out into others’ ecosystems."
He cites Xbox SmartGlass, which links your iPad satnav app to your driving videogame so the app can direct your game character.
"No other company on the planet would develop those kind of solutions for other people’s devices," he claims.
Coplin thinks this change in attitude, from closed off to open, was happening before Satya Nadella replaced Steve Ballmer as CEO, but is gaining momentum under Nadella.
"He’s really been tasked with uniting the company in that kind of way. This isn’t ‘what Steve was doing was wrong and now I’m going to do it a different way’, it’s an evolution of thinking. It’s cultural rather than anything else," he says.
Going back to that example of Bing playing The Clash, Coplin is actually speaking to it – taking advantage of natural language querying technology rather than typing in his DJ requests.
This area of machine learning is something Coplin sees as key to the future of Microsoft.
"With Bing, people think we’re trying to out-Google Google," he says. "But the gift of Bing is it’s a golden thread that works across the platforms that enables these solutions on different devices.
"That’s why we do search, you’re going to see it in Cortana and that’s going to light up the phone."
He refers to Skype Translator’s real time speech-to-speech translation, and talks about building on Azure ML, its cloud-based tool that lets customers build predictive analytics applications.
"As Azure ML advances and we do more and more with Cortana and Bing I think the future of tools like Bing is as much about API as it is the beauty of its search function," he states.
"The future of search for me is as an API not as a homepage destination. We’re about enabling other people. In our heart, our DNA, that’s what we do."
That would certainly see Microsoft grow more and more open, sharing APIs with a network of partners to develop new applications based on its software.
Coplin paints a hopeful picture for the future of the company, one in which Windows and Office are not knocked off a pedestal by new, equally confining areas of focus.
Instead, it’s concentrating on innovating where it has arguably been left behind before, in areas like mobile and search.
As technology pervades more parts of the business than ever before, and as companies like Google and Apple have become enterprise-friendly, Microsoft realises it’s not the dominant force it once was, and is happier collaborating with other ecosystems as it develops its own.
Redmond is no longer the top dog, but it’s certainly a friendlier one.