Can Microsoft innovate? Should we care?

Summary:Microsoft's new Chief Software Architect, Ray Ozzie, recently said that Microsoft's reactive culture may be the company's greatest liability as an innovator. But we don't need an innovative Microsoft.

Microsoft's new Chief Software Architect, Ray Ozzie, recently said that Microsoft's reactive culture may be the company's greatest liability as an innovator. But we don't need an innovative Microsoft. Simple competence would be improvement enough.

Ozzie's comments in an article by the excellent Steven Levy in Wired magazine are insightful and direct. The man Bill Gates calls "one of the top five programmers in the universe" had long been critical of Microsoft's bullying behavior - but now says that since the anti-trust conviction Microsoft ". . . doesn't feel evil."

Yes, and since the Vista fiasco they don't feel competent either. As Ozzie sees it:

"Our greatest challenge may lie within," [Ozzie] says. Throughout its history, Microsoft has demonized competitors— regardless of whether they posed vital threats to the company— and then defined itself in opposition to the presumed enemy. Now Ozzie urges his troops to innovate toward the light, not against the darkness. "Every day we make a choice to focus on the outside competitor or the competitor within," he says, clearly implying that the latter option is the path best taken.

Demonization and innovation Demonizing enemies is an effective means to action. But innovation requires thought as well as action. What is important? How will it work? Why now? What technologies do we need?

Microsoft isn't particularly innovative and never has been. They bought MS-DOS and PowerPoint. Copied the Mac GUI - which in turn mostly came from Xerox PARC - and knocked off VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 for Excel. The list goes on and on.

And that isn't a bad thing. Innovation is a risky business strategy that few companies do well.

Look at Apple's many misses and their limited product portfolio. Their success comes from a focus on user experience, multi-media and industrial design. Apple places a lot of small bets - some of which, like the iPod, win big - and a few big ones, like the iPhone.

Innovation and its discontents Microsoft's real strength is in its distribution network: hundreds of thousands of developers, resellers, consultants and integrators. They want to build on their current investment in Microsoft technology. They don't want revolution. They want profitable evolution.

Ozzie gets this. Windows Azure, the new cloud OS, will support existing Microsoft tools such as VisualStudio, .Net and cloud services like SharePoint and Live Services. No big investment required - and after the Vista debacle that is a Very Good Thing.

The Storage Bits take Microsoft is doing what it does best: copying innovations from others and bringing a massive community to the party. They've got the money to wait for Google and Amazon to make mistakes and then pounce.

Google, thanks to the worst marketing among high-tech giants, will blow their lead. Google's lack of focus and tightening cash flow will force them into compromises that will hurt them.

Amazon is the real wild card and Windows Azure's biggest competition. With 400,000 developers already on Amazon Web Services they have a community that might someday rival Microsoft's. But AWS availability isn't the best and their reliance on retail sales in a bad economy doesn't bode well.

Microsofties would like to be the hipsters at the high-tech party, but that isn't who they are. We can't all be building Ferraris, rockets and supercomputers. We need people who can build freeways and sewage plants, dig tunnels and erect power grids.

Not innovative, but necessary. And done well, very profitable.

Comments welcome, of course.

Topics: Innovation, CXO, Microsoft


Robin Harris is Chief Analyst at TechnoQWAN LLC, a storage research and consulting firm he founded in 2005. Based in Sedona, Arizona, TechnoQWAN focuses on emerging technologies, products, companies and markets. Robin has over 35 years experience in the IT industry and earned degrees from Yale and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton... Full Bio

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