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Microsoft Plays Its Un-Windows Hand

Microsoft Plays Its Un-Windows Hand

If Microsoft's new CEO Satya Nadella is entering a new era, Thursday morning's announcements were as symbolic as they were tangible. 

Putting Office on the iPad, and Office Mobile on the iPhone and Android marks the beginning of document fidelity across any device for creation, consumption and collaboration, but it is long overdue. It required a leap of faith, and an acknowledgement that Windows-centric computing doesn't have to define Microsoft, just as it no longer defines the modern digital world. 

[ READ MORE: Microsoft Announces Office for iPad ]

It is especially refreshing at a time when Windows-centric mobile technology (Windows Phone, Surface) has begun making inroads, especially within the enterprise, thanks to the ubiquity not just of Windows, but Office, Office 365 and SharePoint. Most Surface Pro 2 users I run into relay that it fits that tightrope they walk between business and personal, that it fits seamlessly in the confines of their enterprise application environments.

The Office app announcement just scratches the surface, if you'll pardon the pun. While companies like Apple and Google have recognized and patted themselves on the back because enterprise users have adopted iOS and Android devices, IT has always been a bit of an afterthought. Nadella specifically called out IT in his opening remarks, and some of Microsoft's other, less flashy announcements on Thursday speak to the heart of IT's ongoing challenges with BYOD and the dangers of untethered data. In other words, Microsoft isn't just paying the enterprise the typical lip service. Office on iPad. Image courtesy of Microsoft.Office on iPad. Image courtesy of Microsoft.

That shouldn't come as a surprise, given Nadella's previous role as the head of Microsoft's cloud and enterprise efforts. Microsoft didn't give him the CEO job for nothing. 

Specifically, Microsoft announced its Enterprise Mobility Suite, which combines traditional mobile device management (MDM), identity management, access management and data protection, all run in the cloud. That means Windows Intune, Azure Active Directory Premium (specifically Microsoft announced its upcoming general availability) and Azure Rights Management Services under one umbrella.

During the day's announcements, Microsoft demonstrated its portal service, where corporations can create curated and approved applications for its employees. Nothing innovative there; plenty of others offer this, including BlackBerry. Azure Active Directory has also been available, serving as a cloud-based identity and access management tool for various cloud services. 

The new Premium edition adds both group management and self-service password reset, pre-configured single sign on to more than 1,000 SaaS applications, and security reporting. The new features in Azure Rights Management add support for on-premises Exchange, SharePoint and Windows Servers, and the ability to embed access policy rights into documents. Windows Intune adds support for Samsung Knox, another interesting homage to a world that isn't so Microsoft centric.

Nadella also talked about extending many of these capabilities to developers, including Azure Active Directory APIs and Office 365 APIs, so all of those capabilities (including single sign on and cloud storage, for instance) can be used in any corporate application.

[ READ MORE : Is Nadella Microsoft's Winning Ticket for the Enterprise? ]

Nadella will continue this mobile first/cloud first mantra at Microsoft's annual developer conference, Build, next week in San Francisco. There will most assuredly be news about new things going into Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone, along with more Nokia-Windows devices. But in this new era, if the early pattern holds, Windows will just be one aspect of Microsoft's focus and message.

Nadella is unlikely to emerge on stage at Build screaming "Developers, developers, developers, developers," sweating through his shirt, spittle flying onto the first row of spectators. That was always fun. But Nadella is more likely to quote T.S. Eliot, as he did to kick things off today, appearing less scripted and more authentic than other Microsoft executives have on stage during big announcements. He's only two months into his tenure at CEO, but already there are signs of substance.

If Microsoft is to grow under Nadella, Azure and Office 365 will become today's version of the Windows platform behemoth of yesteryear. The device, and what it runs, will hardly matter. As it should be.