Strange days: Microsoft has become an ‘underdog’

Microsoft Smartphone Tablet Sales

10 years ago, the thought of Microsoft being an underdog would be just as ludicrous as picking the Yankees to finish in last place or betting against a Jay-Z album going platinum. But after getting caught flat-footed by the Apple and Google-led mobile revolution, Microsoft can actually claim to be something of an underdog when it comes to the market for smartphones and tablets.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Microsoft at its Build conference this week has been embracing its new status as an unlikely underdog in a world where iOS and Android are the dominant players and where Windows Phone hasn’t even been able to snag 10% of the market.

“We’re going to innovate with a challenger mindset,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said during Build on Wednesday. “We’re not coming at this as some incumbent.”

What does being an “underdog” mean to Microsoft? As the Journal tells it, it starts with recognizing that it can’t make its every move about protecting the Windows monopoly anymore since that monopoly is long dead and gone for smartphone and tablet users. So while the old Microsoft might have long resisted bringing its Office software to the iPad, the Microsoft of 2014 realizes that there’s just too much upside to selling Office on Apple’s tablet to ignore.

In a lot of ways, Nadella’s strategy seems very similar to that of BlackBerry CEO John Chen’s strategy of making sure people know that you don’t have to use a BlackBerry smartphone to be a BlackBerry customer. The difference, of course, is that Microsoft is still a hugely successful company that has a lot more room for maneuvering than BlackBerry does to get its services onto rival platforms without worrying too much about hurting its bottom line. Because Microsoft can basically print money from its Office and Windows Server businesses, it doesn’t have to worry as much anymore about hanging onto its one-time Windows software licensing empire and can offer Windows for free to OEMs who are making smartphones and small tablets.

“We are absolutely committed to making our applications run what most people describe as cross platform,” Nadella said last week. “There is no holding back of anything.”

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