Think of Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella as the anti-Steve Ballmer.
The company’s faithful are hoping that Nadella, who took the reins in February, is the man to make up for Microsoft's "lost decade." That would be the 13 years under former CEO Ballmer, when the tech giant seemed to lost its cool aura and fall behind on crucial innovations — namely, the move to mobile platforms.
From the start, Nadella has pushed a "mobile first, cloud first" philosophy — one that aims to put Microsoft services on any platform and any device customers use.
That focus became more clear this week at Microsoft's annual Build conference in San Francisco, where the company unveiled new consumer products focused on multiple platforms — and tools to make it easy for developers to create Microsoft services across those many devices.
"It gives me confidence, or at the very least hope, that the company is now in good hands."
Nadella as a 'techy' CEO like Bill Gates
"It gives me confidence, or at the very least hope, that the company is now in good hands," Manoj Jiwatramani, a software quality assurance (QA) engineer at computer-security firm Symantec, told NBC News while at Build. "[Nadella's tenure] is already so different from Steve Ballmer."
Under Ballmer, who served as Microsoft's CEO for 13 years after Bill Gates stepped down, Microsoft was slow to anticipate that mobile devices would overtake PCs. For years, Ballmer resisted allowing Microsoft products to run on platforms from rivals like Apple.
Ballmer's inability to predict, or at least embrace, a mobile-heavy computing world drew criticism including a damning August 2012 Vanity Fair article called "Microsoft's Lost Decade."
Nadella's Build discussion and announcements appear squarely aimed at reversing that trend.
“Microsoft was a huge inspiration to me — I grew up wanting to be Bill Gates," Jiwatramani said. "But Steve Ballmer really disappointed me. He was a business guy, and Microsoft needs a techy guy like Bill Gates. I think Nadella could be that modernized, next-generation Bill Gates."
Embracing mobile — finally
For other developers at Build, the optimism was less about Nadella the man. Instead, they applauded Microsoft's new commitment to making it simpler for developers to create apps for mobile and desktop at the same time.
"I work in a small, four-person department, and we're naturally moving in a direction that made us attracted to developer tools that make things quicker for us," said Mark Kimmet, a first-time Build attendee who works as the senior IT systems engineer at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza School of Business.
"I definitely think they're in a good position right now, given that they're focusing on working with different platforms," Kimmet said. "That's just the reality: People use multiple devices these days."
Recapturing the cool factor
That's especially true for the younger generation, pointed out Zach Negrey, a 24-year-old software engineer at biopharmaceutical company Amgen.
"For me, I'm younger than a lot of the other people here," Negrey said. "It's been this trend of Apple and Google are the cool companies to young people, but I think Microsoft is reclaiming some of that cool."
Negrey likes Nadella's cross-platform push so far, but he thinks Microsoft still has a lot of ground to make up in the consumer market.
"They've focused on enterprise — and yes, there's a lot of business there — but I don't see a lot of young people using Windows Phone, for example," Negrey said. "I think there's an opportunity to grab some of the new generation that's coming up."
'No one is in a good spot'
To Lalitha Ramanathan, that opportunity stretches well past young consumers to the overall computing industry at large.
"The industry in general is changing fast, and it's up to people like me and companies like Microsoft to adapt really quickly," said Ramanathan, who also works in QA at Symantec.
"I don't think any technology company at this stage is necessarily in a good spot," she added.
Ramanathan is reserving judgment on Nadella "because he just got here." Still, she applauded Microsoft's emphasis that it "is no longer a software company — it's about getting our services on all sorts of devices."
In particular, she pointed to Microsoft's announcement that it will eventually offer a free version of Windows for "Internet-of-things" devices like wearables, connected home appliances and more.
"The industry is drastically changing, but it's really about our world changing too," Ramanathan said. "When you have that kind of shift, there's a big opportunity for a company to jump in quickly and take advantage of that new world."
First published April 4 2014, 12:46 PM