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Nadella wins praise for public debut as CEO

Nadella wins praise for public debut as CEO

'Much calmer' than ex-CEO Ballmer, says one analyst in an understatement

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's first public appearance last week was a hit with analysts, who gave him a thumbs up for his time on stage as the company unveiled Office for iPad.

"He was very confident, obviously a whole different character than Ballmer. Much calmer," said Carolina Milanesi, strategic insight director of Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, in an interview Thursday. "Both he and Julie White [a general manager for the Office technical marketing team] spoke very quickly, as if they had a sense of urgency, which they should have."

Milanesi praised Nadella, saying he "did a great job" in his opening remarks as he expounded on his "mobile first, cloud first" strategy. "For the first time I actually see a strategy," Milanesi added.

Nadella spent most of his time trying to describe that "mobile first, cloud first" concept in more specificity, even as he noted that the day's news would be only the first step in what he called a "beginning of exploration" that would continue for months.

"Our customers want to know where we are going, what is our innovation agenda," said Nadella. "[Today] we want to talk about one aspect of our strategy going forward. Over the course of the next couple of weeks and couple of months we will come back, and many other leaders on our team will come back, and talk about other aspects."

"He articulated this emerging strategy," said Ross Rubin, an independent analyst with Reticle Research, in a Friday interview. "He made it clear that this [Office on iPad] was only a piece of the overall strategy."

Nadella was named CEO on Feb. 4, and while he answered questions from another Microsoft executive that day on the company's Redmond, Wash. campus in a staged interview, his first public appearance was dissected by outsiders hoping for insight on his progress in the job.

"I was very impressed," said Rob Koplowitz, an analyst with Forrester Research, in an email today. "First off, I was really glad to see that his first appearance was about Office running on a competing platform. That's a big break from the old Microsoft pattern of always pushing the overall Microsoft stack at every opportunity."

Others made the same point, adding that while Office for iPad's genesis preceded Nadella's tenure, he would receive the bulk of the credit for the detour from Microsoft's long-held "Windows-first" strategy of releasing software first for its own platform.

Some reports before Thursday's announcement claimed that former CEO Steve Ballmer had, along with others in his senior leadership group, made the decision before he retired to launch Office for iPad as soon as it was ready, even if that was prior to touch-first apps for Windows 8.1. If accurate, it meant that Ballmer finally saw the logic of taking Windows off the table, but far too late to save his job.

Ballmer had stepped away from Microsoft in large part because he had been unwilling or unable to speed up change at the company, according to accounts published late in 2013.

"I was very impressed with Nadella on stage," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "He was very professional, poised, and seemed like a man on a mission."

Others, like Milanesi, commented on Nadella's technical knowledge, contending that he warmed up the more technical he got in his remarks.

That comment would make co-founder and former chairman Bill Gates happy. When rumors swirled that the front runner for Ballmer's job was Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally, Gates hinted that he thought Microsoft needed a technically-astute leader.

A large number of sell-side Wall Street analysts had pushed in the months before Nadella's appointment for someone less technical, more business savvy, someone like Mulally, who had rescued Ford from the brink and was believed capable of remaking Microsoft.

As it turns out, Nadella has won some converts.

"I think he sent a strong signal that he is the right person to take Microsoft in a new direction, despite his long tenure [at the company]," said Koplowitz. "I was hoping to see a sea change after Ballmer, and Nadella's stake in the ground on being device agnostic and delivering Microsoft's flagship product to the most endpoints possible with the best possible experience, was a great start."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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