New Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella hosted his first major press event last week.
Most of the media attention afterwards focused on the introduction of a version of Office 365 for the iPad.
Far less commented on were two other crucial commitments that show the direction Nadella’s leadership is set to take in terms of some of the big IT challenges businesses face.
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The first was that Nadella identified three key stakeholder groups for Microsoft’s products: End users, IT departments and developers.
The second was the growing importance of the intersection between cloud services and devices.
These commitments are more important than they might, at first, appear.
End-users and enterprise software
The recognition of end users, or company employees, as a key stakeholder group for business software shouldn’t be a great revelation. Sadly, for many companies in the enterprise systems industry, end-users are an afterthought.
In the past, the decision to purchase business IT systems and products has often been made between a C-level executive and an IT vendor, and not the end-user (namely, the employees). This is different to the consumer market, where often the customer and the end-user of a product is the same person. The end result, and this has been an industry-wide problem, has been that IT solutions have often had terrible, productivity sapping user interfaces for end users.
With apologies to any systems integrators reading this, have you ever heard of an end-user describe enterprise systems from a company such as SAP as having a great user interface, especially after a migration? I didn’t think so.
The move towards BYOD (bring your own devices) and BYOA (bring your own apps) has been, in part, a backlash against cludgy systems with terrible user interfaces. Many employees want usable tools that allow them to work more productively.
One of Microsoft’s strengths in this regard is that it is as much a consumer software business as it is an enterprise IT company.
And Nadella’s commitment to end-users is a refreshing departure from the attitude held by many in the industry.
What about IT staff?
The flip-side in the BYOA/BYOB trend has seen hardware, apps and services from consumer-focused companies, such as Apple, Twitter and Samsung, being adopted by businesses. A senior Samsung executive recently described this trend as the “professionalisation” of consumer technology.
As I mentioned earlier, unlike the enterprise market, in the consumer market the end-user and the customer is often the same person.
However, how a business can secure and support the apps and devices of dozens, hundreds or thousands of employees in a company has too often been an afterthought for consumer-focused tech companies.
For IT staff grappling with this BYOA/BYOD challenge, the announcement of Microsoft’s Enterprise Mobility Suite is as important as the release of Office for the iPad.
EMS includes a cloud-based mobility device management (MDM) system called InTune, which supports Apple iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices. (The growing importance of MDM is something I’ve written about previously.)
It also includes Azure Active Directory, which is a single portal that allows IT staff to control cloud service credentials for employees across a range of cloud-based services and applications.
These features are likely to become critically important to businesses.
Cloud services and cross-platform device support
During the press conference, Nadella at one point joked that when he told Microsoft’s staff of his “cloud first, devices first” strategy, some of his engineers and mathematicians joked that he didn’t understand ordinal numbers. He went on to say that the most important point was actually the intersection between services and devices, because cloud services are of little use without a device to view them through.
Crucially, Microsoft is becoming increasingly platform agnostic when it comes to the platforms that can access its cloud services. The bigger picture story of the Office iPad announcement is an increasing level of support for iOS and Android device users.
This is an incredibly smart move as Windows 8.2 and Windows 9 are very important for Microsoft and cross –platform support hedges the company’s bets.
Meanwhile, it’s also an excellent outcome for business, where users might choose to bring a range of different Windows, Apple and Android devices to work.
Before being appointed as Steve Ballmer’s successor as Microsoft chief executive, Nadella oversaw the company’s cloud and enterprise group.
His strategic focus on end users, IT staff and developers, along with the intersection of cloud computing and devices, is far more insightful than it might appear at first glance.
Admittedly, it’s still early days – the press conference came after just 52 days in the top job.
Nonetheless, for businesses that rely on Microsoft’s products, this is fantastic news: There’s someone at the top who really understands where business computing is heading.