Journalist Michael Kinsley famously defined a political gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s (MSFT) neophyte CEO, might just be giving truth-telling by public figures a good name by turning Kinsley’s dictum on its head. Nadella is developing a specialty in the highly unusual practice of answering questions directly and truthfully.
A case in point: Asked at an industry conference Tuesday night why Microsoft has issued a touch-enabled version of Microsoft Office for the iPad but not yet for Microsoft’s own Surface tablet, Nadella chose candor. “We wanted to make sure we have full-touch Office on the platform with the most market share,” he said.
That statement is startling only because of the departure it represents from Microsoft’s past. Of course Microsoft needs to be on the iPad, far and away the tablet market leader. In fact, it raises the question of what took Microsoft so long. Amazon (AMZN), for instance, understands the importance of its Kindle app on the iPad. Years ago, Apple figured out how critical it was to produce a version of iTunes for Microsoft’s Windows operating software. iTunes may have been created for the Macintosh, but the Mac’s share was tiny compared to Windows-enabled PCs. So Apple (AAPL) went where the users were.
Nadella isn’t for abandoning Microsoft’s devices. He said Microsoft’s software needs to work on all devices, including its own. But, he said, “we want to get usage.”
Nadella spoke some truth in other areas as well. Grilled by veteran journalists Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at the new version of their old industry event in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Nadella said Microsoft builds devices to help create demand — not because it wants to be a device manufacturer. “Software is the most malleable resource,” he said, an interesting word choice. “In order to be in the hunt you need to build devices. You need to be all in.” He also didn’t mince words on the failures of Microsoft and its partners compared with Apple. “The PC ecosystem needs new innovation,” he said. In fact, he thinks Microsoft needs to build the “next new thing.” That’s a tall order, but a good aspiration.
The Microsoft CEO revealed no new strategic initiatives. He defended Microsoft’s commitment to search and to its recently completed acquisition of Nokia, calling the first core technology and the latter a “means to an end,” namely a toehold in mobile software through ownership of a big device maker. He unveiled a nifty product called Skype Translate that enables callers on the Microsoft-owned Skype service to speak to each other in their native language and have their dialogue translated by a computer and spoken out loud. (The demo was conducted in English and German.)
The CEO, whose demeanor is the polar opposite of his predecessor, Steve Ballmer, spent some time telling his personal story. Two of his three children have special needs, he said, one being a quadriplegic. He said he struggles all the time with work-life balance. An only child, Nadella credited his economist father and literature-professor mother with not pressuring him to succeed academically and professionally, an unusual posture for middle-class Indian parents of his time, he said.
A truth-teller though he may be, Nadella isn’t above the occasional chief-executive-level platitude — or outright whopper. Asked to assess the latest Surface tablet, he called it “promising,” acknowledging that that’s what you call a product that hasn’t succeeded yet. On the subject of assessing Google, Nadella sounded like his peers in CEO-land. “I don’t know what Google’s strengths and weaknesses are because I don’t think about that,” he said. That one is tough to believe, and one almost hopes he’s fibbing in this case. Nobody’s perfect.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin didn’t add much to the conversation about Google’s strengths and weaknesses in his onstage interview. Brin explained his curious status as board member, pal of CEO Larry Page and head of Google X, the company’s “moonshot” arm. In effect, he runs the relatively small research group — responsible for such initiatives as Google Glass, self-driving cars and high-altitude balloons for delivering Internet access — and not much else. He said, quite credibly, that he’s happy to leave all the headaches of running a giant company to Page.
Brin let loose quite a handful of interesting nuggets during a rambling and often unfocused interview dominated by a discussion of self-driving cars. Google X has precisely eight projects, four of which Brin discussed, and he won’t allow new ones until a current member of the class “graduates.” He said the company has a group that is “approaching 1,000 people” working on Internet security. He said the company plans to build 100 to 200 self-driving cars and is working with automotive suppliers in the Detroit area, Germany and California. He quite candidly said “business questions” about driver-less cars would be left for another day, a rather Googley and altogether believable assertion.
Brin wore a version of Google Glass for a portion of the interview, and he pooh-poohed the controversy over the product, namely the meme in the media that only an obnoxious techie would wear the computerized spectacles in public. At the same time, Google knows it has a potentially contentious product on its hands. A member of the audience asked if Google glass could use facial recognition to help a user identify someone they are talking to — a particularly alluring feature at an industry conference. “We’ve asked glass wear manufacturers not to put facial recognition in Glass,” Brin said. “Society is still formulating its opinion on that.”
Thus ended an evening with yet more truth-telling. Could it be a trend?