Microsoft may make more money from its CEO than from its products

Nadella channelling Zuckerberg (photo: Microsoft)

Executive biographies keep a low profile on most company websites. Not so at Microsoft, which has been showing off its new chief executive, Satya Nadella, on a special microsite of the kind usually used to hawk things that consumers can actually buy. This is unlikely to persuade anyone to buy a PC or a Surface tablet. What, then, is the point?

Visitors see a list of Mr Nadella’s qualifications (Education: BS, MSCS, MBA; Hobbies: poetry). A video shows the new CEO answering questions such as “Why do you think Microsoft is going to be successful?”, which gives you an idea of how useful he might be in a boardroom. The blurb strikes an aspirational tone: “Nadella wanted to complete his master’s degree and take the Microsoft job. He did both.”

A clue to the purpose of this glossy marketing lies in Microsoft’s photographs of its new chief. In one, he wears a blue hoodie that might have been borrowed from Mark Zuckerberg, staring into middle distance as though nurturing an idea. Another shows a besuited Mr Nadella against a plain white background – mimicking the visual idiom of Apple, the iPhone maker that overtook Microsoft’s market capitalisation in 2010. The allusions are unmistakable. In its new leader, Microsoft wants us to believe it has found a visionary who can turn this ailing incumbent into the next big thing.

This is unlikely. Mr Nadella is a 22-year veteran of a company which lately has struggled even to produce passable imitations of its rivals’ products. If the flame of invention burns inside him, it has yet to manifest itself in a form that sets consumers on fire.

Microsoft has never shown much flair for making software but at the art of selling, it is a virtuoso. It was slow to ape features invented by competitors such as Apple and Lotus, and took years to iron out infuriating flaws. Yet for nearly two decades its programs could be found on practically every computer on the planet. Sales to business customers are growing at 10 per cent a year even now.

That Microsoft is pushing Mr Nadella as assiduously as it sells software is an indication of where its priorities now lie. Bill Gates made his fortune selling computer programs, but now he may be more interested in shifting the company’s shares. The Microsoft co-founder still owns 4.3 per cent of the company and remains its biggest shareholder, but he is selling fast; a decade ago he owned more than 10 per cent. It may not be long before Mr Ballmer, the departing chief executive whose stake is only a little smaller than Mr Gates’, follows suit.

It will be years before the share price accurately reflects the value of Mr Nadella’s contribution as chief executive. In the meantime, perception is everything. For Mr Gates and Mr Ballmer, Microsoft’s attempts to market their successor may now be worth more money than its efforts to sell its products.

The writer is the FT’s executive comment editor