Sunday, January 22, 1984. It was a cold day in Dallas but I was warm – probably because I was already on my second or third beer at what was shaping up to be a classically great Super Bowl party. I still remember exactly where I was standing when Apple’s 1984 Macintosh launch commercial came on. I also remember exactly how it made me feel.
At first, I was creeped out by the hordes of drone people in that dark, dreary hall. But when the runner hurled her hammer and smashed the image of Big Brother on the big screen, I felt empowered. I saw myself as that runner. I hoped that, someday, I might have that kind of impact on the technology industry where I worked.
Of course, the drones in the ad were business workers and Big Brother was IBM (IBM). The runner was Apple (AAPL) and her hammer was the Macintosh that would launch the following day. And there’s no doubt that, on that day, it was cool to be Apple – the Silicon Valley upstart run by a young, charismatic entrepreneur who was out to change the world.
Over the coming years, as computer hardware became commoditized and the technology world became more and more dominated by chips and software, we would all come to think of the Wintel duopoly of Microsoft (MSFT) and Intel (INTC) as the new Big Brother. And the power of that platform relegated Apple to a niche player.
Fast-forward to today, a brave new world dominated by smart mobile devices and our insatiable demand to be connected and socially networked anytime, anywhere. And that world is the undisputed domain of two enormous giants: Apple and Google (GOOG).
While Microsoft software continues to power the corporate world, the company has become too big, too complex, too diversified, and too fragmented. As a result, it was late to internet search, late to the cloud, and late to mobile.
Microsoft began to look very much like a has-been, a relic of a stodgy old technology world that has since moved on to bigger and better things. Even its long reign as the most valuable technology company on Earth has been eclipsed by Apple and Google.
And then, last year, something important happened and everything began to change.
Steve Ballmer restructured the software giant as a devices and services company united behind a single brand: One Microsoft. He reorganized the company to be more focused and to innovate more rapidly. And he launched a slew of new products that have been well received, including Azure, Office 365, Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, Surface, and Xbox One.
Microsoft has always been a great place to work, but even after the surprise announcement that Ballmer would be stepping down and the ensuing turmoil over who would replace him, those I’ve spoken to inside Redmond were excited to be at the company during such a critical transition and optimistic about its future prospects.
To bring this full circle, I was surprisingly moved by Microsoft’s Super Bowl commercial on Sunday. Granted, it didn’t have the wow impact of Apple’s 1984 ad, but it was more empowering and more inspiring. And I have never felt prouder to have played even a small role in the technology revolution that has brought so much to so many.
Besides, you’ve got to admit, it’s an eerie coincidence that, for the first time ever, the Seattle Seahawks – owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen – won the big game.
My only real concern, as I said last week, is whether newly appointed CEO Satya Nadella is up to the extremely difficult challenge of eliminating internal barriers to cultural change, continuing the product innovation momentum, and completing Microsoft’s transformation to a more nimble, focused company.
One thing is certain. Microsoft is beginning to look very much like the newly reinvented company that Ballmer envisioned: a young upstart out to challenge Apple and Google – not to mention Amazon (AMZN), Oracle (ORCL), Sony (SNE) and others – with a bold new vision and a new leader to make it a reality. Suddenly and, I have to admit, surprisingly, it is cool to be Microsoft.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.