In recent days, animals have been seeing things. Actually foreseeing things. In Sarasota, Florida, a manatee named Buffett (no relation of the Oracle of Omaha, Warren), prophesied that the Denver Broncos would win the Super Bowl of American football. Having called it correctly for six years, Buffett had a great track record. Just like Eli, an orangutan in Utah, who, however, predicted victory for the Seattle Seahawks.
Eli was vindicated, giving him a seven-year winning streak. Meanwhile, there’s Punxsutawney Phil, a Pennsylvania-based groundhog, who emerged from his burrow in the hamlet of Gobbler’s Knob, and saw his shadow, though it’s unclear whether that was an NSA agent. Phil’s vision apparently means six more weeks of winter. Shubenacadie Sam of Nova Scotia, another clairvoyant rodent, doesn’t agree, since he didn’t see his shadow, thus forecasting a shorter winter.
These predictions may have varied, but just about anyone who has observed the trajectory of the American tech sector over the last decade, knows about the long shadow Indian-Americans cast over it. Predictably enough, this week, less than 15 miles from the Seahawks’ home stadium, an announcement came from the Seattle suburb of Redmond, Washington, that a cricket-loving Hyderabadi is the new CEO of Microsoft.
After the procession of Jobs, Gates, Ballmer, Brin, Bezos, Zuckerberg and Mayer, we now have Satya Nadella leading a global tech major. The New York Times helpfully provided its readers with a phonetic guide to the new CEO’s name — “pronounced sa-TEE-ya na-DELL-uh”.
It doesn’t take a seer to divine that Nadella’s task won’t be as simple as making your Windows operating system hang. He takes charge at a time the giant corporation faces headwinds, as daunting as those encountered by Vikram Pandit when he headed Citigroup.
In the distant past, say the 1990s, Microsoft was a monopoly. Despite its creepy Blue Screen of Death, and crawling with more bugs than a Delhi home during the monsoon season, the software colossus controlled the PC market. Just about the only thing you could do to mark your protest was to hack its startup screen and change it to Windoze.
While Apple was reinvented and Google revolutionised our online experience, Microsoft hasn’t quite succeeded in its attempts at a revival. When Apple redefined the music industry with the launch of the iPod, Microsoft countered with Zune. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s about right since hardly anyone listened to it. Now, as the iPad and Android devices marginalise the PC, Microsoft sank with its Surface tablet.
Nadella’s challenge is to reboot the system without causing it to crash. Until now, perhaps deriving inspiration from the perpetually overcast Seattle skies, Nadella has been concentrating on cloud computing. Somewhat like its flagship OS, in recent times, Microsoft has constantly required critical updates, but none has yet fixed the basic problem of its products being as tuned into the 21st century as, say, the VHS tape.
One fascinating sidelight of Nadella’s appointment is the contrast to the last Indian-American to seize Seattle’s attention — Kshama Sawant, the Pune-born socialist city council member elected last November. I doubt Nadella will be Skyping with Sawant anytime soon, especially since the latter has called for the “democratic public ownership” or nationalisation of major Washington State companies like Boeing, Amazon and, yes, Microsoft. Even Microsoft at its worst, can’t be accused of such obsolete thinking.
For now, Nadella has a new profile, not just at Microsoft but also on social media. Tweetless since the summer of 2010, Nadella’s display picture went from being the default anonymous egg to his smiling countenance, even as his followers jumped from less than 5,000 to over 15,000 within hours of the announcement. Meanwhile, Microsoft also released an image of Nadella in a hoodie, though fortunately without the sagging trousers. But it doesn’t take a rotund rodent to predict that he’ll have to evolve the company from beyond appearing trendy to products that trend.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
The views expressed by the author are personal