Meet the new Microsoft, same as the old Microsoft?

Satya Nadella's company claims its purpose is to play well with others. But some say it's become "sharp-elbowed" again. Should we be surprised?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

He seems like such a nice man.

James Martin/CNET

I confess to have been seduced.

Well, a little.

Ever since Satya Nadella became Microsoft's CEO, the impression was that Redmond now housed a happier, more humane company that wanted to play nicely with everyone.

Yes, it still cursed Apple occasionally, but who doesn't do that? Occasionally. Even Nadella himself gave in to it.

But just because you have a more pleasing image doesn't mean you're not still aggressively competitive when you see the opportunity.

Recently, there was a hurriedly made ad for Microsoft Teams that cleverly tried to roast Zoom and its security issues on a spit.

Then there was Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield raising the possibility that Microsoft wants to kill his company. Which would be rare cruelty, he said, because Slack isn't even a competitor of Microsoft Teams at all. (No, Slack is but a work of communal art in a sad, venal world.)

To the innocent bystander, this didn't feel like Microsoft playing well with everyone else at all. Could it be that Redmond's warm inviting glow is, at least somewhat, for show? And, really, should anyone be surprised?

I've certainly heard from inside Redmond that there's a more muscular, bouncerish approach in specific areas of the business where Microsoft sees the most opportunity -- and the biggest threat.

This week, the Wall Street Journal darkly suggested that Microsoft's competitors insist it "has deployed sharp-elbowed business tactics reminiscent of an earlier era."

It couldn't be, could it, that competitors -- some of them from the start-up era -- were seduced into thinking Microsoft was merely benign too?

Butterfield intimated that Microsoft's focus has been more on destruction, rather than on the construction of new and better software.

But is this really the hell of Gates? Or is it more precisely what you'd expect any large, modern tech business to do?

Like Facebook, Microsoft might occasionally copy upstarts' products and use its scale to (try to) nullify the competition. If it can't buy the competition, that is.

Is Microsoft Teams really that much better than Zoom, now that the latter is vigorously attempting to rectify its security disasters? Or is Teams just a more convenient and cost-efficient proposition when it can be wrapped up with Office 365 and its attendant joys?

I was moved by two elements from the Journal article. There was Microsoft's insistence that it has no interest in interfering with competitors and prefers to work with them. And then there was Jared Spataro, the company's corporate vice president for Microsoft 365 and Teams, who admitted: "We intend to compete and win."

They don't seem entirely compatible, until you consider that any company's warm image only goes so far. Apple regularly tugs at the emotions, when in reality it's an aggressive, demanding and often ruthless organization.

Naturally, I had to ask Micrososft if it's returning to its old, evil ways, using any method possible to dismember its competition like Henry VIII would dismember chicken dinners.

It was Spataro himself who replied. He told me: "We have a great deal of respect for all of our competitors." Well, yes, but you can still respect the chicken before you eat it.

Spataro insisted this wasn't about competition for its own sake. Instead, he said: "We're laser-focused on our customers, and they tell us that they love Teams because they can meet, chat, call, and collaborate in a single app. In our view, you can't build a successful business on competitive tactics -- you have to stay focused on evolving customer needs as your north star."

The congenitally skeptical might say that Microsoft was built precisely on ruthlessly competitive tactics. And the company is clearly intent on targeting Zoom, especially now that Slack has floated into the loving arms of Amazon. But you don't seriously expect Microsoft to all sweetness and light, do you?

I wouldn't dream of suggesting there are two functioning sides to Microsoft's mouth.

I would suggest, however, that the sudden lurch to working from home has made Nadella and his cohorts realize that their company can create a new and deeper involvement with its products. The sort that, like Windows, cannot easily be undone. But that, as Redmond knows well, has to be ruthlessly fought for.

This goal would be made easier without these uppity start-upish flies buzzing around Microsoft's potential new dinner.

And, having created the impression that Microsoft is now a kinder, gentler company, customers may well be more receptive to its smooth, but very forceful, even sharp-elbowed sell.

It's quite clever, really.

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