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Apple knows who it is, but Microsoft doesn't

Satya Nadella's 3,100 words of motivation to his staff shows that even the new CEO can't sum his company up in a few simple words, something that Apple is strong at. Can Microsoft find its personality?

Who are you, Microsoft? Microsoft/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

When new brooms sweep, the dust flies in the air, its comfort disturbed.

Where does it go? Does it fall back down again? Or does it keep going inexorably upward, disintegrating as it seeks a new surface to lie on?

The question is worth asking with Microsoft. This week, the company's new CEO, Satya Nadella, penned 3,100 words of spring-cleaning aimed at motivating his staff and including them in the creation of a better company.

He wants them to "question orthodoxy."

"The thing that I've found is this hunger for being clear on what is it that is our soul, our core, and that unique contribution and sense of purpose that we can make -- and have a bold ambition around it," he told my colleague Charles Cooper.

It's hard to make things clear in 3,100 words. It usually takes 300 or, sometimes, just three.

At the core of his thinking, however, is a bracing reality: Microsoft doesn't know who it is anymore.

It used to be clear. Its personality was forceful, bullying to some. Its purpose was a computer on every desk. It was damned if it was going to let anyone get in the way.

"We're big, we're powerful and you can't do anything about it," might have summed it up.

Apple began to chew away at this confidence. They always focused on what would delight real people, as opposed to what might immediately maximize company profits.

A simple mantra was Apple's: "If we're the one who help make people's lives better and more enjoyable, we'll make more money"

Apple created devices and an ecosystem, couched in a personality that was simple and engaging. People actively embraced it, rather than passively coming to terms with it.

Suddenly, Microsoft was offering opaque self-definitions. Devices and services? That's a verbal device that might have come from a Civil Service memo.

What did it actually mean? And where was the "who," rather than the what?

Nadella has held his company up to a mirror and realized that there are quite a few "whats" and no "who."

Apple and Google haven't won yet, he told the Verge, as if he concedes that clearer, more human brands have captured people's imaginations.

Love it or not, Cupertino can always sum itself up succinctly.

Even in ads of questionable quality, it can insert a manifesto that is neither hard to understand nor 3,100 words long.

Last year, it said that it exists to make its products an experience. It cares about "how it makes someone feel." It asks "Who will this help? Will it make life better?"

It explains: "If you are busy making everything, how can you perfect anything?"

It insists: "There are a thousand 'no's' for every 'yes.'"

It adds that Apple is engineers and inventors who sign their work and want those who experience that work to be uplifted by it.

Apple defines itself not only by what it does, but by what it resolutely refuses to do: pander to the lowest common denominator, for example. Principally, it defines itself by how it makes you feel.

When the company fell out with its advertising agency last year, its complaint wasn't that the agency hadn't thought of some new personality to Botox onto Apple's brand. Instead, it wanted the agency to present the reality of why Apple was still lovable.

For Microsoft, the hardest thing now is to find not 3,100 words, but 300. It needs to offer the simplest of definitions and the most direct of motivations.

Nadella focused on the word "productivity" as something that might define the Microsoft ethos. It's not an attractive word. It's not one that excites, moves, stirs feelings. It's one that sounds like work. Which, in many ways, Microsoft often has.

Yes, technology has driven society to believe that we're always on, always available, always working. How many people think that's a good thing?

Too often, Apple has symbolized enjoyment, fun, style and excitement, while Microsoft has been, well, hard work.

Now that Apple has encroached on the work space by making it more enjoyable, Microsoft has to find something that can compete with that on an emotional level.

Productivity isn't a personality. It's an engineer's idea of what better looks like.

Nadella was at pains to explain that Xbox isn't going anywhere. "Xbox is one of the most revered, loved brands in games."

Indeed, Xbox has the sort of emotional connection with its customers that the Microsoft brand doesn't. Because it's a who, not just a what.

As Nadella asks his employees to focus -- finally -- on what real people want, he realizes that gamers are people too.

"It doesn't matter that it's not core to productivity," he told CNET. But, wait, wasn't productivity supposed to be the core of the new Microsoft?

If Microsoft decides who it really is and how it wants to make people feel, it will be far easier to decide what it must do and how.