Satya Nadella
Satya Nadella

Just a few years ago the world was leaving Microsoft for dead — a company that couldn't innovate, refused to play nicely with others and even bought the wrong things, like Nokia and Yammer.

Early incarnations of the Surface were commercial disasters. Even Gartner predicted Windows would be obsolete by 2017.

Go Satya Go

When CEO Satya Nadella took the helm in early 2014, he asked himself some tough questions, "Why does the world need Microsoft?" If Microsoft disappeared, would anyone care? 

That's what Nadella told Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker during WSJDLive in Laguna Beach, Calif. this week, an invitation-only conference where CEOs, founders, pioneers and investors explore a wide range of tech-related issues.

What a difference a few years make. 

According to Microsoft, 400 million devices are now running Windows 10, Office has been downloaded to 340 million times to mobile devices, 1.2 billion people use Office, 80 percent of the Fortune 500 are on the Azure cloud and Microsoft’s stock price has just about doubled in the past two years.

Talking Nokia, Skype, LinkedIn

Of course, there were missteps, too. "We clearly missed on the mobile phone, there's no question," Nadella told Baker. 

Baker also teased Nadella about Microsoft's "tremendous" track record on acquisitions such as Nokia and Skype (fails Nadella balanced with successes like PowerPoint and Project) and then pushed him to talk about the LinkedIn acquisition strategy. 

Nadella looked no further than Microsoft's mission statement for an answer, noting the professional network would advance Microsoft's efforts to "empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more." That mission blends nicely with the LinkedIn mission of "connecting the world's professionals to make them more productive and successful."

He also clarified that Microsoft would be a custodian of LinkedIn's data, not the owner, a popular misconception that even Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff reportedly has.

Though Nadella said nothing about today's or next week's Windows events during that conversation, the ground was tilled for what is to come. And there are footprints in the web.

Microsoft Teams

Microsoft's My People

Microsoft has a habit of leaking things it wants you to know, going as far as providing sign-on screens for services that are not yet available. Today's example? Microsoft Teams

Microsoft leaked screen shots (the product is being used as Skype Team internally), which look a lot more like Slack than Yammer. Teams will likely be unveiled by Nadella and Office corporate vice president Kirk Koenigsbauer at Microsoft's Office event in New York City next week.

But Nadella envisions One Microsoft for all of your life (personal and professional). And in the next version of its Windows 10 operating system, the Creator’s update, he sets the stage for that with a product so social it can bridge home and the office. 

The company demonstrated a new feature called “My People,” which enables users to pin all of the people they care about to their Windows task bar and drag and drop any document, photo or video right on top of those contacts for easy sharing.

MyPeople also has an attention-grabbing "shoulder taps" feature, which looks like it allows "your people" to leverage an emoji to interrupt you when commanded. (Let's see if this makes it into the actual release).

More about Microsoft's consumer-facing news, including the Windows 10 Creators update, an all-new Surface Dial and Surface Book are available here.

Can We Love Microsoft?

At WSJDLive, Baker gently taunted Nadella about making products people need but don't necessarily love. "Are you happy with that?" Baker asked.

Nadella could have pointed to Xbox, Minecraft and even Excel junkies, but he had done that earlier in the conversation. So he simply smiled and said, "Of course, we want that to change. If you don't meet that bar (making products people love), you will pay for it."

What Nadella didn't point out is that some pretty savvy companies apparently do love (or fear) Microsoft. Google announced a Surface-like Jamboard — a collaborative, digital whiteboard — yesterday and Workplace by Facebook is going after Office 365's base. 

Benioff, meanwhile, is leading opposition to the pending LinkedIn buy. As for Apple, its fourth fiscal quarter 2016 results were just OK — and now it's delayed the release of AirPods, its new wireless earbuds.

Suddenly Nadella has a cast of tech industry leaders on their toes more worried about what they might miss than what they might mock.