The Weirdness of Microsoft Garage

Back in the day, Microsoft employees had to hide their iPhones, lest senior management see them toting a competitor’s device. Nor was that the only case of Microsoft showing a corporate aversion to rival products: Former CEO Steve Ballmer refused to launch Office for the iPad, for example, for nearly four years after Apple’s bestselling tablet made its debut.

Microsoft GarageBut under new CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft has made some pretty big changes in how it interacts with outside platforms and companies. Whereas the “old” Microsoft, powered by enormous Office and Windows revenues, did its best to crush anything that stood in its way, the company under Nadella has embraced the idea of, well, embracing competitors’ offerings. That brings us to Microsoft Garage, an internal effort that probably would’ve made Steve Ballmer hurl a chair in rage had someone tried to launch it five years ago.

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In broad strokes, Microsoft Garage is an internal lab devoted to building experimental products—including Android apps, such as one for Android Wear called “Torque.” Others focus on social apps and improved lock screens for Android phones.

The effort bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Google’s (now semi-defunct) “20 Percent Time,” in which the search-engine giant encourages its employees to tinker with outlandish ideas; successful products such as Gmail and Google autocomplete emerged from that informal incubator. Other firms in Silicon Valley, such as Facebook, encourage similar exploration, with an eye toward birthing something innovative and lucrative.

“If [Microsoft Garage] never makes a billion-dollar product, and all it does is make people happy and meet other people in the company, then that’s success,” Garage founder Chris Pratley said in an article posted on Microsoft’s corporate news website. “If it generates a product, great. If it generates a new feature for a product, great. But even if it is just a morale booster, it’s still worth doing.”

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Microsoft Garage isn’t an outlier; it’s representative of Microsoft’s new corporate strategy, which emphasizes the cloud and mobile—even if it’s a Microsoft product on a rival cloud or mobile platform—over circling the wagons around Windows and Office. The question now is whether Microsoft’s apps and cloud services can stand out in a field crowded with strong, experienced competitors. Will the answer come out of Microsoft Garage?

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Image: Microsoft