By all accounts, Satya Nadella is a strong choice to lead Microsoft deep into the 21st Century. Often described as a well-liked, longtime company insider, he successfully led Microsoft's Cloud and Enterprise group during a period of intense technological transformation and worked on business-oriented projects during the majority of his 20-year Microsoft career.
As outgoing chairman Bill Gates put it in a statement: "Satya is a proven leader with hard-core engineering skills, business vision and the ability to bring people together."
That combination makes him a safe, mature choice for the company as it faces ongoing battles with tech heavyweights ranging from Apple and Amazon to Google and Oracle. After Steve Ballmer's tumultuous 14-year reign, it's no doubt how he got the position over higher-profile candidates both inside and outside Microsoft.
Ballmer is a hard act to follow
I get it. Choosing Nadella -- along with Gates stepping down from his position as Chairman -- demonstrates that Microsoft is a mature, stable company ready to move into a new era. That's great, and probably necessary given the company's current situation.
And yet, I can't help worry that the company has missed an opportunity to reach for something more transformative. The ascendance of Nadella is doubling down on Microsoft's current position: a highly profitable but no longer fast-growing tech behemoth, with lucrative legacy businesses challenged by changing trends in both personal and business technology.
Nadella represents the solid, stable approach to dealing with those challenges and opportunities. Given Microsoft's immense size, it's hard to argue with that. But let's be clear. Maturity, stability, and continunity are not the values currently in vogue among a tech community that's always searching for hyper growth and the new new thing. Too often, mature is taken to mean over the hill and no longer relevant or interesting.
Chasing the new, new thing
As the consumerization of enterprise technology seems to be unstoppable, Microsoft has chosen a leader who comes from the business side of things, not the consumer side, where Microsoft needs plenty of help. Even (especially?) under the exuberant Ballmer, Microsoft often seemed like your nerdy uncle trying awkwardly to hang with the teenagers at the family reunion. Of Microsoft's consumer products, really only the Xbox has managed to seem cool.
Don't get me wrong - the back-end stuff is more important than ever, and Nadella's engineering and leadership chops -- not to mention the expected lowering of the shouting volume -- will be very welcome in Redmond.
But is Nadella the guy to make Microsoft relevant in the mass market? To stand as the icon of a comapny desperately trying to be relevant to consumers as well as businesses? To expand on the cultural clout of tech leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and Mark Zuckerberg? Or even Tim Cook or Jeff Bezos?
Consumer vs. enterprise?
Maybe. Only time will tell. But in hiring a person that most observers had never heard of, that outward focus doesn't seem to be what Microsoft was looking for. Instead, this seems like a move to steady the ship internally. That's fine, and maybe even necessary. But the conservative choice can also be dangerous. The conventional wisdom holds that it's easier to add business features to products that excite consumers than to get consumers interested in products and services created for business users. Reversing that equation is likely to be Nadella's biggest priority, and most important challenge.