What Microsoft’s Satya Nadella Could Do Next

When Microsoft appointed Satya Nadella as its new CEO in February, analysts and pundits immediately began to debate over what sort of leader he’ll turn out to be, and whether he’ll attempt to radically remake the company in his own image.

Satya NadellaSome answers to those questions are expected to emerge this week, when Nadella makes his public debut at a March 27 event in San Francisco. He’ll likely follow that up with an equally high-profile appearance at Microsoft’s BUILD conference next month.

Nadella seems well aware of the challenges that confront Microsoft, which has fallen behind Google and Apple in the consumer-tech realm, and faces a number of strong competitors in the enterprise IT space. (Pessimistic pundits have suggested the company faces long-term obsolescence unless it undergoes a radical retooling over the next few years.) One anonymous Microsoft executive told Re/code that Nadella wants the company to behave more like the hungry underdog, seizing the initiative in nascent markets: “Satya was basically saying we can’t just assume we can dominate.”

But on a concrete level, what will Nadella actually do? That’s the multi-billion-dollar question. Here are some possibilities:

Office for iPad: As the old saying goes: if you can’t beat ‘em, release software for their platform. Despite a more aggressive push into mobile devices, Microsoft has failed to make much of a dent in Apple’s commanding share of the tablet market. Now it’s widely expected that Microsoft will (partially) embrace its longtime rival by launching Office for the iPad, which could create a whole new revenue stream while protecting the mobile flank of Microsoft’s business divisions. An Office-on-iPad launch would also play into Nadella’s emphasis on cloud and mobile.

Windows Not First: Under former CEO Steve Ballmer (and before him, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates), everything Microsoft did on a strategy level was seemingly designed to protect the cash cow of Windows. While that seemed a logical strategy for many years, the rise of the cloud has weakened the primacy of the operating system—your average user simply doesn’t need Windows (or iOS, for that matter) in order to access a vast plethora of browser-based software and services. In light of that, it’s probable that Nadella will shift his company’s emphasis toward building cloud-based software and services, all while focusing less (but not too much less) on maintaining Windows at the expense of other divisions.

Acquisitions Time: Microsoft sits atop a lot of cash. While the company hasn’t been acquisitions-shy before, it’s mainly spent that money horde on sizable firms such as Nokia and Skype, with mixed results (Skype has proven something of a success, while the jury’s still out on Nokia). If Nadella plays toward his comfort zone and emphasizes the development of cloud properties, it seems likely that Microsoft will begin spending money on promising Web properties, which could place it in even fiercer competition with Google. As another element in his calculations, Nadella also knows that the right acquisitions can draw a lot of buzz—Yahoo demonstrated that if you buy enough startups, people will stop thinking you’re a dinosaur. Is Snapchat still for sale?

The Big Question: Spinoffs? For quite some time, analysts and investors have badgered Microsoft to either break apart or sell off some of its divisions, focusing in particular on Xbox and Bing. The latter is now impossible for Microsoft to sell off or shut down—search is an integral part of the company’s cloud strategy, and eliminating it would leave Google with an unencumbered run of that particular arena. But Nadella might choose to abandon Microsoft’s longtime desire to dominate the living room, and spin off (or sell off) the Xbox division. While the likelihood of this seems small, outside analysts still think there’s a chance—especially if the new Xbox One fails to handily beat Sony’s PlayStation 4, which currently has a slight lead in sales.

Whatever Nadella chooses to do, he faces several tough decisions over the next few quarters: running a company the size of Microsoft isn’t for the faint of heart.

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Image: Microsoft

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