June 12, 2012

Is Microsoft On The Way To Being Cool Again?

John Neumann for

The technology business is fast-paced and vibrant, and companies fall in and out of grace quickly. With the recent rise of seemingly unstoppable Apple, along with Facebook and Twitter, among others, old stalwart Microsoft may look like a has-been company on the way out of relevance.

That feeling however, is not shared with a new batch of interns within the halls of Redmond. “Microsoft feels cool again,” said 22-year-old Gbenga Badipe, an electrical engineering student at Rice University, one of 1,500 interns spending 12 weeks at the company´s leafy campus this summer.

“Microsoft products touch almost every area of technology, and everything they do is starting to work together.”

Badipe and others already think their competitors´ days are numbered, branding Google and Facebook as “creepy” because of their aggressive stance on privacy and heavy reliance on advertising, writes Bill Rigby for Reuters.

Microsoft is “revolutionizing the world,” said Juan Llanes, 25, a computer science and finance major at Georgia Tech, who is also interning at Microsoft this summer. Llanes grew up revering Microsoft during his childhood in Cuba, where computers were effectively banned.

Microsoft points to that level of youthful enthusiasm, evoking the company´s heyday in the 1990s, when Bill Gates took his revolutionary startup from being IBM´s junior partner to the most valuable company in the US.

John Ludwig, a senior executive behind the creation of Internet Explorer and Windows 95 said, “I went to work at Microsoft because I believed. It wasn´t about money. I believed in the idea of getting computers in the hands of everybody.”

“Young students want inspiration, they want to follow something,” said Ludwig, who left Microsoft in 1999 to found Seattle venture capital firm Ignition Partners. “That underdog thing is a powerful motivator - for a lot of great talent, that´s an appealing place to be, that feeling of us against the world.”

Now that level of enthusiasm was easy to conjure, when Microsoft stock increased 90-fold in the 1990s, creating a host of stock option millionaires. Those days are long over, and Microsoft shares are still well below their 1999 peak. The idea that the company can embody a start-up spirit at this stage of its development might also be a stretch.

Ludwig is insistent that Microsoft´s old “scrappy” spirit is starting to resurface. Fresh hardware such as smartphones and tablets may be just out of reach and its internet search efforts are essentially being crushed by the weight of Google, but Windows still runs 90 percent of the world´s computers, and Microsoft´s research and product development efforts are broad and deep.

“To me, Microsoft is a giant start-up battling to innovate while maintaining compatibility,” said Llanes from Georgia Tech. “We are underdogs in some areas, and we are strong in other areas with lots of people trying to knock us off. The stakes are incredibly high at Microsoft, and that´s the kind of place I want to work.”