On Microsoft’s inability to innovate

Thu, Feb 4, 2010

Featured, News

The New York Times has an intresting piece titled “Microsoft’s Creative Destruction” that takes a look at some of the reasons why Microsoft, who ruled the tech world back in the 90’s, has curiously been unable to succesfully innovate in a commercially viable way over the past few years. Microsoft Surface anyone? The author of the article is Dick Brass (what a name!), who served as Microsoft’s vice president from 1997 to 2004.

What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.

And when you toss in inter-company competition without a clearly delineated objective, rivalries between varying product groups can also become destructive.

For example, early in my tenure, our group of very clever graphics experts invented a way to display text on screen called ClearType. It worked by using the color dots of liquid crystal displays to make type much more readable on the screen. Although we built it to help sell e-books, it gave Microsoft a huge potential advantage for every device with a screen. But it also annoyed other Microsoft groups that felt threatened by our success.

Engineers in the Windows group falsely claimed it made the display go haywire when certain colors were used. The head of Office products said it was fuzzy and gave him headaches. The vice president for pocket devices was blunter: he’d support ClearType and use it, but only if I transferred the program and the programmers to his control. As a result, even though it received much public praise, internal promotion and patents, a decade passed before a fully operational version of ClearType finally made it into Windows.

And this is where hiring the right kind of people makes a world of difference. You want to hire people who are excited about new innovations and what it may mean for the company, not people who are reflexively threatened by advances spearheaded by others. This type of negative mentality also played a role in Microsoft’s bumbling attempts at creating a tablet, an initiative which actually stretches back several years before Apple eventually introduced the iPad.

Another example: When we were building the tablet PC in 2001, the vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept. The tablet required a stylus, and he much preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts doomed. To guarantee they were, he refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet. So if you wanted to enter a number into a spreadsheet or correct a word in an e-mail message, you had to write it in a special pop-up box, which then transferred the information to Office. Annoying, clumsy and slow.

So once again, even though our tablet had the enthusiastic support of top management and had cost hundreds of millions to develop, it was essentially allowed to be sabotaged. To this day, you still can’t use Office directly on a Tablet PC. And despite the certainty that an Apple tablet was coming this year, the tablet group at Microsoft was eliminated.

You can check out the entire article over here. It’s highly recommend and a very informative read.



1 Comments For This Post

  1. Flyte Says:

    I agree that using a tablet for word processing is pointless. You’ll never be able to type as fast or as accurately on a touch screen (even a multi-touch one) as you can on a physical keyboard. The whole reason people can touch-type is because they can feel where the buttons are and don’t have to look down and position each finger by sight.

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