Microsoft’s ‘long-term brain’ relishes the future

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It is one of the enduring beliefs of the information technology industry that change happens at internet speed and big transitions in computing architecture happen in the blink of an eye.

According to this view, old technology champions are unseated by upstarts riding the new technology wave almost overnight.

Not surprisingly, Craig Mundie, the man who is paid to act as Microsoft’s long-term brain, does not see things quite that way.

Long one of the guiding visionaries behind the company’s technology strategy, he has taken charge in recent years of some of its most important long-term initiatives.

These include the battle against Linux and other open-source software, the “trustworthy computing” campaign to make Microsoft’s software more secure and reliable, and the struggle to win the hearts and minds of governments in the developing world, where Microsoft hopes to find its next big markets.

Asked now whether the software company had missed the latest big waves in computing – the shift of computing to mobile phones, TV set-top boxes and other devices, along with the rise of the internet – he quickly becomes agitated.

“I think it’s just crazy to think you can wave your wand overnight and somehow create another company, or half of a company, or quarter of a company, the size of Microsoft. I mean, it just doesn’t happen that way,” he says in an interview with the FT.

To see Microsoft as a relic of the PC era that is now passing, he adds, is to miss what has really been going on at the company over the past decade, as Microsoft has shifted its research and investment focus to other markets.

“You’ve got to separate whether the company is PC-centric in its strategy and investment, or whether it’s just PC-dominated in its revenue,” he says.

Mr Mundie has just taken on a more central role in persuading the world that Microsoft is now ready to catch the next wave in computing. Though he has been involved in strategy for the past eight years, first taking charge of the consumer market and more recently acting as chief technical officer, the announcement in June of Mr Gates’ planned departure in two years’ time has pushed the former supercomputer expert into the limelight as the company’s new head of strategy and research.

Does Microsoft have enough to show, though, for the decade of effort it has put into the mobile and consumer electronics markets? Mr Mundie worked on interactive television and other consumer technologies soon after coming to the company in 1992, yet its attack on the set-top box market failed and it was Apple, not Microsoft, that created the digital music business.

“Do I wish we could anticipate everything perfectly? Sure. That doesn’t happen,” Mr Mundie says. To focus on the false starts, however, is to miss Microsoft’s track record in eventually catching up with and overtaking the tech industry’s upstarts, he suggests.

It took 11 years and nine releases of the software before Microsoft’s Office became the most widely used word processor, he says: Windows took 10 years and four releases to outsell MS-DOS.

“I contend that that’s a function of this very long cycle it takes to establish these franchises,” he says.

Certainly, Microsoft’s success in the server market, which has nearly grown to equal its Office and desktop operating system businesses, provides some evidence of its success in building a long-term position in new markets even if, as the European Commission contends, the company has had an unfair advantage because of its ability to link server software to its dominant PC operating system.

The real test of Microsoft’s massive investments in research and development over the past decade, suggests Mr Mundie, is about to come in the developing world.

“If you lined up 2.4bn Indians and Chinese five years from now and counted the form of computer that most of them use, I don’t think there’s any question that the most used . . . will be the phone,” he says. The television may also play a significant role in the spread of computing in the emerging markets, he adds, relegating the PC to a lesser role – though even here, if Microsoft can adapt its business model and its marketing strategies, big opportunities lie ahead.

“We’re the only company, as far as I know, that has a potentially leadership product in every category,” he says.

Many rivals have counted Microsoft out before. Take the appropriately long-term view and that can be a big mistake, says Mr Mundie.

“You can think of Microsoft as the ‘magical morphing Microsoft’,” he says. “Every person who has said to us, ‘Here’s this new thing, and it’s going to be the thing that unseats you,’ has always neglected the fact that the company is willing to change and has this deep technological investment pool.”

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