Is Microsoft an innovator or follower?

Summary:Dave Winer and Robert Scoble debate the topic of whether Microsoft is an innovator or follower, often playing catch-up with rivals, in the Wall Street Journal. The fact the two friends and rabble rousers are debating the topic in the bastion of business reporting, the WSJ, is a good sign that big media is not just inhaling its own fumes.

Dave Winer and Robert Scoble debate the topic of whether Microsoft is an innovator or follower, often playing catch-up with rivals, in the Wall Street Journal. The fact the two friends and rabble rousers are debating the topic in the bastion of business reporting, the WSJ, is a good sign that big media is not just inhaling its own fumes. The debate has some good moments, but the topic doesn't lend itself to uncovering any new insights about the DNA of software giant.

Microsoft spends nearly $8 billion a year on R&D, and Bill Gates has talked for years about tablet computing, speech recognition, more intuitive software, programming tools and visualization technologies. I've visited Microsoft Research multiple times over the years, and I've seen some cool demos and concepts, but the innovations seem slow to seep into products or take hold in the marketplace. Microsoft's focus is primarily on excavating huge market opportunities and evolving huge legacy code bases. Serving the massive installed based, and keeping the revenue flowing steadily, has made Microsoft rich and  conservative, and slow to pick up on some new trends, such as the Internet in the last century. But Microsoft can be a fast follower when it needs to, as witnessed in how it vanquished Netscape. Dealing with Google is not proving to be as easy.

But competition is what helps accelerate innovation. The fact that Microsoft was late to the Internet party or the video game industry doesn't mean that it can't innovate. Some of the work that Microsoft is doing on the Web, such as Live Clipboard, is advancing the state of the art, and not just for Microsoft.

In the debate, Dave said that innovation is the "province of users," not big companies. He should know since he was instrumental in the innovations such as RSS, blogs and SOAP.

Today the dominant vendor in software is Google. How do I know? This morning their calendar service went down, and all of a sudden I could see how dependent on them I had become. That's why Microsoft stock is in the dumps, and why Google is riding high, but of course, they're repeating the same mistakes Microsoft and IBM made, and will eventually be unseated when the users take control again, as they are certain to do.

Innovation is the province of users. It's hard to see this in an industry that's so good at spinning its tale and in a publication like The Wall Street Journal that's so willing to help spin it. But IBM was unseated by users named Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Mitch Kapor and Philippe Kahn, Michael Dell and Rod Canion. And Microsoft was unseated by users named Tim Berners-Lee, Marc Andreessen, Linus Torvalds and a few others. Google is locking users in just like the others did, they can do it because the technology is new and mysterious, but soon it won't be so new, and the users will take control again. And that's where innovation comes from the technology world.

To think it comes from corporate campuses is just not borne out by history.

Robert, who spent a few years interviewing lots of smart people at Microsoft, properly counters that Microsoft should not be counted out when it comes to innovation.

Microsoft is struggling – struggling to stay important to a new always-on, always-connected world. Microsoft made a bet against the Web back about five years ago and Microsoft is struggling with that mistake.

But, when you see things like Photosynth, you realize Microsoft can come back and be innovative. They have a lot of smart people, and huge resources (resources that very few companies have).

They did come into the videogame industry to become a sizeable player – and one that the competition now has to react to (where Microsoft was playing the follower role before). Xbox Live, for instance, is very innovative. I can't see the gamer scores of players on any other system. That is innovation.

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Topics: Microsoft

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