Is Microsoft an innovator or follower?

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.

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TOPICS: Microsoft
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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.

[poll id=16]

Topic: Microsoft

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39 comments
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  • Your voting code is hosed

    not reporting votes properly...
    No_Ax_to_Grind
    • Made by google....

      ... what did you expect? :)
      Confused by religion
    • Maybe it's your browser

      You should try Firefox. Kidding, I'm kidding....
      tic swayback
    • Okey, I may have to agree w/ No_Ax,

      I find it hard to believe that so many people said Apple.
      swoopee
      • I have a hard time believing more than 10% thought MS was the most

        inovative.
        DonnieBoy
        • I have a hard time believing

          you could actually read the results...
          John Zern
  • **AHEM**

    "I can't see the gamer scores of players on any other system."

    Try the PC. PC games have had stuff like this for years.
    CobraA1
  • Companies are not innovative

    People are innovative. Bill and Steve's innovations were only business oriented - never technology or vision oriented. They were smart to recognize a great vision (and still do) and clamp on to that like a pit bull, but they never created these. Their real "innovations" were how they calculated ways to abandon ethics and skirt the law as closely as possible. Sometimes, as we know, they skirted too close, were caught, and brought to task for these infractions.

    IBM innovative? Well only that they hired bright and innovative people. I know someone on the team that did THE very first laser printer product at IBM in the late 70's - early 80's. Because the IBM corporate culture discouraged thinking that was outside the conservative mind set of the business plan, he left when they would not let the team create a smaller, workgroup/personal size laser printer. Canon did that and the rest is history. IBM may have changed, but I doubt it.

    The problem is that large companies tend to stifle ideas that they find are challenging to the their status quo. The IBM PC is a perfect example of this.

    Google was innovative. Then they grew. They try to foster that independent spirit that nutures innovation. Their really bizare questionaire for prospective talents is an example. But I expect that now that their stock is skying, that spirit is fading fast and being replaced by greed.

    Real innovation is a labor of love. It is the fullfillment of a creative drive coupled to a unique vision or idea. This is extremely hard to stimulate in a corporate environment with deadlines, meetings, progress reports and "productivity" meetings. The real innovators rarely start to innovate because of a "get rich," or career advancement motive. It is something that they feel almost compelled to do just for the sake of seeing the innovation manifested in the world outside their head. Some call it creative genius.

    Corporations are opportunistic and loved to find these innovations to exploit them as well as the innovator, if they can. Just like Microsoft seizing the PC innovation, that IBM shunned, and taking it and its vision forward.

    IF you don't believe that people innovate despite their corporate entanglements, go read the story about the "Post-It" note developed by 3M.
    msolgeek
    • Very poor example

      [i]IF you don't believe that people innovate despite their corporate entanglements, go read the story about the "Post-It" note developed by 3M.[/i]

      That's about as bad an example as you could find. Someone very low on the totem pole came up with an idea for tabbing hymnals, and pitched it to the company -- which has a process for doing exactly that. He got corporate backing, funding, and enough rope to hang himself.

      [b]He[/b] didn't expect the product to make more than a modest amount of money, but 3M strongly encourages its employees to bring their wacky ideas in and doesn't insist that every product sell billions -- which is why they have something like 3 products per employee.

      Nobody was as surprised as he was when the Post-It business went vertical, but 3M backed him and he went vertical with it.

      You shouldn't [b]expect[/b] innovation from companies, but it is possible for companies (even really, really old ones like Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) to remain really healthy environments for cultivating innovation. Google is trying; we'll have to see whether they succeed.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Ofcourse they are

      microsoft or IBM are all innovative, in your example you say you know someone who worked on the first laser printer. from IBM, fact IS, if he was not working for IBM he would not of been able to develop that system.
      so it's IBM AND NOT HIM, that is innovative.

      its quite stupid to say companies are not innovative, or that they "follow". in fact they DO BOTH, they have too,

      1. provide customers with what they want.
      This is what ALL successful business do.

      2. develop new products and services to increase their client base.

      This is just normal business, nothing new or bad.

      Fact is: companies that DONT innovate, and who dont provide customers with what they want will not succeed in the real world.

      What is NOT innovation, is the direction the Open Source/Free software/GNU/linux is heading.

      if Microsoft is NOT innovative, why is it that Linux/open source are doing all they can to copy the feel and functionality of MS products ?

      Why could you not think of a name more innovative as "OpenOffice" for your knockoff of MS "Office". ??

      who's following who ?? :)

      U cant say GNU/Linux is innovative, because its simply a clone of UNIX. No innovation required.

      what should be asked is why is GNU/linux open source so REACTIVE, as opposed to being PROACTIVE as they clearly need to be.

      MS products are "Client oriented" they are successful because they provide what most clients want, and are willing to pay for.

      Linux/Open Source, is "Developer oriented", where the programmers provide what THEY want or think the customers wants...

      just askin a loaded question about "is MS innovative" is just seeking to provide a forums for some more MS bashing. because its so easy to do.

      if you had of asked "why does Open Source copy what MS does", you KNOW you would be flamed to death.

      or ask, why is Linux NOT a new and innovative operating system, and why is it still locked in with UNIX, and a KNOCKOFF of someone elses innovations.

      why is Open Source and GNU/Linux STILL copying everyone elses work.

      what is Innovative in Linux ???

      if microsoft is so backwards, and retarded, Linux is even more so by copying them !!!
      Aussie_Troll
      • You're not even a very good troll

        Probably not an Aussie either.

        You misses my point completely while trying, quite in vain, to claim that MS "is too" an innovator.

        A company that enables innovation is not am innovator. As you so aptly point out, they are merely following good busness practices. What's innovative about that?

        Well nothing actually. But I guess you can't cascade logic with enough conditional stages to apprehend that fleeting thought.

        Thanks for trying tho....
        msolgeek
  • Not surprisingly, Apple got the most votes ...

    ... but that is not necessarily the 'right' answer. Apple is 'sexy' -- they capture the imagination. But are they TRULY innovative?

    Through their own vision and innovation, they currently OWN the portable digital music market. This is true largely due to the fact that they were willing to 'share' the potential profits with peripheral makers who have made the iPod dramtically more flexible than anyone else's MP3 player, or than Apple ever could by itself. But, as the post points out, Microsoft is often late to come to market but they are GREAT at catching up!

    Of those other companies listed, Apple was first to the personal computer market. (Ironically, Jobs worked for Atari and Wozniak was a HP engineer before they founded Apple. Yet, HP followed most everyone else to the PC marketplace -- and Atari, well, they kind of self-destructed after MCA bought Wozniak out.)

    In truth others came first to the PC market but they are all long gone today. The Apple GUI was invented by Xerox PARC -- which also invented the mouse and the Ethernet. So where is Apple's innovation there? Apple used the Xerox GUI model in the Lisa -- at about that same time, MS developed a character-based Windows 1.0.

    So, from this standpoint, Xerox was the innovator but they never made any real money off of those inventions. (Xerox never seems to make that final leap to market dominance despite their ability to innovate.)

    BY FAR, IBM owns the most intellectual property which, in some sense, makes them the granddaddy of all innovators. Readers would prefer to believe that MS 'beat out' IBM but in reality, IBM walked away from the PC marketplace when it became a commodity. IBM does not sell commodities -- they sell SERVICE!

    Today, HP is viewed as being as 'stodgy' as IBM and this is probably a fair assessment.

    Sony sells great TVs but in truth, they are now a media company -- having acquired considerable film and music assets. They are simply 'following the money'. No real innovation there.

    That leaves Yahoo and Google, who are essentially in the same business -- web content and services. Yahoo had a lot of 'firsts' is 'old' by comparison -- and perhaps a little too conservative these days.

    Google is goign gangbusters but can it last? Is Microsoft getting ready to move into their market as they have with Apple's iTunes market with Zune?

    Marketing has little to do with innovation and everything to do with capturing the attention of your potential customers. MS has proved time and time again that, even when coming from behind, they KNOW how to do this.
    M Wagner
    • For the sake of historical accuracy

      The mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart around 1964
      while working at Sandford Research Institute. He later patented
      his invention in 1970.

      But Engelbart and Xerox's mouse were both simple point and
      click devices. Apple actually gave us the rest of the mouse
      behaviors we all know and love: double click, click and hold,
      click and drag, drag and drop, multiple clicks and more.

      The original Mac GUI was never a direct copy of Xerox's GUI. Nor
      did it use any of Xerox's code. Most of the development work for
      the Lisa GUI was complete before Apple's famous visit to PARC.
      Apple already had former PARC engineers on its team and would
      continue to attract them afterwards. So you could certainly say
      that the Apple engineers were inspired by Xerox's use of the
      desktop metaphor, but to say Xerox invented the Mac GUI is a
      complete distortion that seeks to limit the degree of Apple's
      actual contribution to desktop computing.

      Apple pioneered perhaps the largest GUI innovation. The Mac
      Toolbox. The GUI religion that says "all apps under the Mac OS
      will subscribe to the following conventions" and those
      conventions started with the top menu bar and the fixed
      position of the Apple, File, Edit, Special, Window, Help menus.
      Standardized Open, Save, Alert dialogs, Control Panels,
      Windows, Buttons, Variable width text. All the things that
      brought consistency between applications and intuitive
      simplicity to computers for the first time. Pretty well everything
      you take for granted in the Windows GUI all started on Mac.
      Len Rooney
      • Yes, that's the point

        The notion (as erroneoously shown in the movie Pirates of Silicon Valley) that both Apple and Microsoft were thieves that snuck into Xerox's basement is a destortion of actual events propagated by people who don't want to admit how much Windows was cribbed from the Mac OS.

        Now that doesn't mean that they don't contribute the culture of technology that already exists, but there products and services are largely copies and tweaks (and sometimes even minor improvements) of other existing technologies. That's what they do. that is there business. And that's not neccesarily bad, but it's also not innovation.
        Tigertank
        • Yeah, there's a big difference between movies...

          ...and actual history.

          In the actual historical events, Apple stole nothing:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Computer

          "Jobs and several other Apple employees including Jef Raskin
          visited Xerox PARC in December 1979 to see the Alto computer.
          Xerox granted Apple engineers three days of access to the PARC
          facilities in return for selling them US$1 million in pre-IPO Apple
          stock (approximately US$18 million net)."

          So whereas the movie portrays Apple as a pillager of Xerox IP, in
          truth, at the time, they were actually Xerox's great hope. Xerox
          was one Apple's largest share holders and wanted apple to do
          what they could commercially with their ideas. Microsoft, on the
          other hand, made no stock deals with either Xerox or Apple, but
          saw fit to just help themselves to Apple's ideas and code while
          they were developing the original versions of Word and Excel for
          the Mac (that's where these apps originally started).

          I wouldn't really have trouble with the notion of Microsoft
          borrowing ideas from Apple, except that they did, and continue
          to do, such a bad job of it. They always half-ass it, call it 'good
          enough' and foist it upon unsuspecting consumers. It's a shame.
          Len Rooney
      • Right you are!

        I guess it's become some sort of IT Urban Myth that Xerox PARC invented the GUI and mouse. I myself didn't know about Englebart until Slashdot posted an article about the half-century anniversary of the mouse (or something like that) a while back.

        And yes, I voted for Apple, but coming from an IBM family, I'm feeling like I've betrayed the brain trust. Here's a short list of stuff that I'm pretty sure IBM came up with (feel free to jump in here if I'm wrong on any of these):

        * 1-transistor DRAM
        * ASCII
        * The relational database
        * VGA
        * Most of the critical components of the modern hard drive (read/write heads, platter composition and coatings).
        * SABRE
        * DES
        * FORTRAN
        * Fractals (Mandelbrot worked for IBM)
        * RISC
        * Scanning Tunneling Microscope
        * Speech recognition
        * Lots of stuff with carbon nanotubes
        * First commercially successful general-purpose computer, the 701 EDPM
        And, of course:
        * The PC
        UserLand
        • Corrections

          I believe Bell (AT&T) was more the inventor of ASCII, as they were part of the ANSI subcommittee that created ASCII. IBM's code was EBCDIC (Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code, which was 256 bits vs ASCII's 128 bits - 8 bits vs. 7 bits)

          IBM was responsible for the others.

          But be careful of the term "PC". IBM was late to the microcomputer game - well after Altair, Atari, Commodore, Sinclair, Heathkit, etc. While Commodore (with their PET) was the first to really penetrate the business market, and then Dan Bricklin's VisiCalc made the Apple ][ a hit - general business climate waited for IBM to bless the business-oriented microcomputer market with the Personal Computer.
          NetArch.
    • my theory

      "Google is goign gangbusters but can it last? Is Microsoft getting
      ready to move into their market as they have with Apple's iTunes
      market with Zune?"

      Microsoft has already tried to compete against Google, and
      failed... just as they failed to take down Apple's iPod with their
      me-too Zune. Which only goes to prove my theory: that Germans
      love David Hasselhoff.
      buddhistMonkey
  • None of the above

    They can't afford to be. They have too much at stake.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Amen to that!!! [NT]

      .
      swoopee