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At Build Tour, Signs of a Less Controlling Microsoft

For years, Microsoft has used the phrase "better together" as shorthand for all the benefits and special features you get if you run an exclusively Microsoft stack.

At a Microsoft Build Tour event on Monday in New York, one of the customers in a testimonial video used the same phrase. But here's the thing: He was talking about the benefits inside his organization of new interoperability between Microsoft and The products that were better together were parts of the Microsoft stack and's cloud CRM -- not, say, Windows Server, SharePoint and SQL Server with Office.

Even if it was originally an unwitting comment by the customer, the fact that an inversion of a standing Microsoft catchphrase made it into a heavily edited Microsoft promotional video is telling. More telling, the rest of the video included developers talking about how much more open Microsoft is now and, literally, how it's no longer thought of as the "Death Star."

Having sat through Microsoft's presentations for nearly 17 years, it struck me again and again on Monday how many times Microsoft made reference to interoperating with the non-Microsoft world. Yes, the company has said things like that over the years, but the references now are more mature, more matter of fact. In the past, Microsoft presenters might make reference to a necessary competitor, but they'd often do so with a wink or a snide comment. The subtext was often, "Clearly it would be better if you used a completely Microsoft stack, but if you're foolish enough to use this inferior product, we'll deign to work with it."

Nothing felt snide or superior on Monday.

"What we've done over the last two years is really transform the platform," Neil Hutson, a Microsoft technology evangelist speaking on the Build Tour, said of Office in one typical comment. He was talking about how Office is now running on Android and iOS, and he went on to describe all the non-Microsoft languages you can use to develop for Office now. Then he invited developers to take things further. Describing Office Graph, Hutson said, "We have completely opened up the back end."

Other references were to the Windows Universal Application bridges for Android and iOS, frequent references to GitHub and recurring references to There was an Apple Mac on stage. One demo showed an Android phone emulator in Visual Studio. Microsoft regularly plugged the new Visual Studio Code, a development environment for Mac and Linux. One of the evangelists used the word "Google" as a synonym for search.

The themes carry over from the main Build show in late April when Azure CTO Mark Russinovich appeared on stage wearing a Docker T-shirt and giving a talk on interoperability between Microsoft and Docker's container technologies.

Clearly, Microsoft still prefers customers to go all-in with Microsoft. "Native is better," Kevin Gallo, partner director for developer ecosystem and platform, said of Windows Universal Apps in a keynote on Monday as he explained the Android and iOS bridges.

But the feel on this Build Tour is that Microsoft is clearly recalibrating its approach to the market. The new Microsoft seems to be opening up to match the speed of open source, mobile and cloud competitors. Microsoft is no longer pretending to itself or to its customers that it can do everything well for everybody -- or that everyone should, or will, wait while it tries.

Posted by Scott Bekker on May 18, 2015