Good ideas are good ideas

Good ideas are good ideas

Summary: Marc McDonald, Microsoft's first employee (as in, the first person they ever hired) explains the secrets of success in the software market.

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TOPICS: Microsoft
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Robert Scoble has been running around Microsoft attacking people with a video camera.  Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but he recently had a 17 minute interview with Bill Gates, and before that, with Marc McDonald, the first Microsoft employee.

Apparently, that's no exaggeration. He joined the company when it was just Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and everything was done out of a shared apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico (which is, in fact, a very nice place to live). He left when the company was getting "too big" at 400 employees, joining a company named Asymmetrics that did well enough to get bought later by Microsoft.

Marc McDonald seems to be good at picking winners, which makes me think he'd be a good person to have along on a business trip to Ireland and a visit to one of those ubiquitous Irish betting shops. That's why I found the following comments in that interview so interesting. It also meshes well with my previous post, where I stated that Linux needs to figure out what Windows does right if they hope to make a dent in Microsoft's market share.

Scoble and Marc McDonald got into a discussion about the iPod, a product for which Mr. McDonald had a lot of enthusiasm:

Scoble: Isn't this ironic that we are talking about a competitor's product?

McDconald: You need to know, you better know what competitors are doing. You better look at their good ideas, and the good ways they think, and take advantage of them. If somebody's going to tell you, hey, this is a good thought, hey, it's a good thought. Not invented here is not the best thing to have, you've got to be broad.

...You recognize good work when good work is done. And that's one thing you can say about Apple. They don't have our size, they don't have our market, they do a lot of good thinking, though. Give people kudos where it's due. I don't care if its Microsoft or external, good ideas are good ideas, and it doesn't matter where they come from.

Topic: Microsoft

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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34 comments
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  • What windows does right

    What Windows does right
    is cut exclusionary deals
    with major computer suppliers.

    O.K so a lot of that is illegal now.

    The trick is to persuade the major computer suppliers
    to market Linux desktops.
    cyber_rigger@...
    • This is easy

      ...everyone just walks in here and makes posts which PROVE MY POINT!!!
      John Carroll
      • Hopefully you're smart enough

        not to take one idiotic rant too seriously.

        BTW I do agree with you that you do have to look at how others are successful and incorporate those good ideas. Indeed that has been the hallmark of MS's success.

        Some may look at that last sentence and see that as a jab at MS. It's not. That, along with good marketing, is how MS became what it is today. (Marketing, by the way, is another area where MS's competition is missing the boat.)

        So why don't I buy their software anymore? Because it's been a while since they've incorporated good new ideas in their OS. WinXP look shiny and all, but so do all the other operating systems. WinXP certainly has improved since it turned gold in 2001, but not as much as the other operating systems. MS can win me back with Vista, but it's going to take a lot more than simply incorporating all the good ideas KDE/*nix or MacOSX have now, because by the time Vista turns gold, both of them will have incorporated newer ideas. My point is that yes, you do need to incorporate good ideas that come from somewhere else, but you need to generate new good ideas internally too.

        Good WORKING ideas that is... WinFS is a GREAT idea, but it doesn't work, so what good is it?
        Michael Kelly
        • Well said!

          I generally believe that M$ has an imagination gap, all they can think of is what has already been done.
          An_Axe_to_Grind
          • I don't think it's lack of imagination.

            Like I said, WinFS is a pretty good idea, and they've had that idea for over a decade. I think rather that it's a lack of realism. Their good original ideas seem to be far beyond their capabilities.

            You can draw comparisons from the dropping of Vista's features (like WinFS) due to their underdevelopment to another MS failure: Microsoft Bob. The IDEA behind MS Bob was a pretty good one. To create an operating environment that anybody who can click a mouse can figure out. The reason MS Bob failed is because MS lacked the technology to pull it off without the end result coming out a bit... well, retarded. That technology probably exists now, but since most of their original target market now knows how to work a basic GUI-style computer there's little point to it. (Or maybe not... maybe now that the technology exists it would not be a bad idea to re-explore that avenue.)

            The same sort of thing is happening with WinFS and many other features of Vista. The technology does not exist (or MS does not know how to harness it) to be able to pull it off.
            Michael Kelly
          • It's an inability to deilver

            Microsoft had a dream run to the top, their competitors
            were increadibly inept or complacent and the justic system
            amazingly disinterested.

            By the chickens are coming home to roost. As a 'market
            leader', Microsoft simply can't deliver market leading stuff.

            Microsoft Bob is great example - the idea was possibly OK
            but the execution utterly sucked. Compare that to iPod -
            who wants and increadibly annoying animated do-dad
            asking questions? Apple made something that just works.
            Much like the Mac OS - people could just use it. MS just
            ripped it off. Now that they have their monopoly, they can't
            think of any way to improve it.

            Microsoft are in decline. They will remain as a force in
            mid-level business computing for quite some time, but the
            days of the PC are numbered. Just look at where Apple is
            going with great sucess - much the same place as MS
            would like to go but keep failing.

            Another to watch is Palm - they are at a real crossroads as
            PalmOS morphs into a Linux clone. It will be interesting to
            see if they can make the transition and where PDAs will go
            from here.
            Fred Fredrickson
        • Ideas always lead to new ideas

          Microsoft is just more willing to admit that. Microsoft is the only one to have bothered to make an integrated, end to end solution for IPTV. There's a reason why they've managed to attract so many telcos. No one else offers something of the breadth as Microsoft. No, they did not "invent" the concept of IPTV, but they DID make the solution that customers need.

          .NET is BETTER than Java. Granted, it drew on ideas in Java, but .NET has many features that make it better. Hindsight is an advantage, but raw innovation is also present.

          Avalon and Indigo ARE innovative technologies. Granted, it builds on thoughts and ideas percolating in the industry, but that doesn't make Microsoft's implementation any less innovative. XUL is often touted as a predecessor to XAML, but XUL didn't invent the idea of using XML to layout user interfaces, and XAML (and Avalon, the basis for the technology exposed through XAML) DOES go beyond XUL.

          Microsoft made ASP. Java copied that technology with JSP. Microsoft copied some innovations from JSP and moved beyond with ASP.NET. It's the cycle of innovation, and Microsoft is a part of it like any company or group of programmers.

          Microsoft is bubbling with innovative ideas. What they are good at, though, is implementation. They make that technology useful. Raw innovation is important, and Microsoft's R&D labs are well funded, but implementation, the ability to turn an innovative idea into something normal people can use on a regular basis, is an innovation of a different sort, and equally important.
          John Carroll
          • Correction on XUL and a thought on innovation

            XUL is not a GUI layout language - layout of XUL is handled through CSS including such attributes as display:none. There is, therefore, no demand in XUL that an object have any visual presentation at all, which would suggest that the object thus created need not be "laid out". XBL, a language which links XUL objects to underlying code, can bind method calls to a presentationless XUL object. The XUL object can receive events from the user, or even other object instances, and through XBL call compiled code. XUL would best be described as an [i]generalized object instance language[/i], but one has to learn what underlies XUL first to realize the flexibility and power.

            Microsoft took the XUL invention, wrapped it in a disguise, and percolated the disguised invention through to developers, who with a mediocre knowledge of XUL would assume Microsoft had actually invented something, rather than merely borrowing. This borrowing without credit is par course for Microsoft. If an idea isn't nailed down with a patent, and sometimes even if it is, Microsoft will innovate it and never give credit to the inventors. Were Microsoft to recognize the source of their innovation, and do so publically, fewer creative people would detest their wholesale taking without renumeration.

            On this we agree: Microsoft bubbles with innovative ideas. However, their ability to successfully [b]invent[/b] ideas is somewhat lacking. Designing an end to end IPTV solution, by recognizing, imitating, and co-opting technology that has been foreshadowed by others is to my mind no more inventive than assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Yes, assembling the puzzle takes time, work, logic, and effort and in the end a pretty picture emerges, but neither the pieces nor the picture was created by the puzzler.

            Remember, innovation is to bring something to market as if for the first time. To invent requires production from whole cloth. When Microsoft began their "freedom to innovate" campaign a half-decade ago, the definitional part of me chuckled: for once Microsoft wasn't using a weasel word to describe what they do. They innovate, but seldom do they invent.

            Vanilla Coke anyone?
            John Le'Brecage
          • On Innovation vs Invention...

            This is an old subject that has beat to death, but there are still some bones that can be picked on both sides of these subjects.

            If you go to Dictionary.com, you find several similar definitions for the word "innovation," e.g., "The act of introducing something new," with a synonym being "invention." This seems to be the common meaning most people ascribe to the term when, for example, Microsoft is accused of doing something that others have previously done.

            However, in the business world, the term innovation acquires an additional attribute that doesn't necessariy imply invention per se. If you go to Investor.com, you find that "innovation" has the definition "The creation of new products and/or services." This exactly describes what Microsoft does. They are a business, and are Master Integrators in the same sense that General Motors integrates windshield wipers, head lights, and hub caps, none of which they invented, into a product that people find useful. In the field of business, Microsoft may therefore be said to be innovators, and judging by their business success, damn good ones. My bone to pick here is with both the detractors and defenders of MS, who seem to have missed this important distinction (at least, from what I've seen).

            My other bone to pick is with the concept of companies inventing things. Companies are legal entities that exist on paper only, and thus are incapable of "inventing" anything, and therefore do not, and have not - ever. Individuals invent things. They may or may not be in the employ of a company, corporation or other legal entity, and if so, their employer may therefore acquire title to the invention. But to say that the company "invented" the product, merely because of the actions of an employee, is to distort the reality of the creative process as an individual act. To say that Microsoft never invented anything is, therefore, strictly correct in this sense, but the same may be said to be true of any other company. While I understand the complaint that many have concerning Microsoft's acquiring technology that was originally developed elsewhere, it can be argued that, from a business perspective, this makes very good sense. It's all a question of risk - let the other guys first see if there is a market for this or that gizmo. If there is, then acquire said gizmo and invest in whatever is needed in the way of additional engineering and/or human engineering enhancements that might make it even more useful, and then incoroporate it into your main product line. Car manufacturers do this all the time.

            The absence of precision in word usage can, and often does, lead to needless argumentation over what amounts to little more than differences in assumed definitions in terms. A current case in point regards the debate flaring up again over "Intelligent Design" vs "Theory of Evolution." Again, using Dictionary.com, one finds the following definitions for "Theory":

            1. A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.
            ...
            6. An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture.

            Scientists use the term "theory" in the sense of 1. above. While the second definition above is probably the one most people adopt, it is the wrong definition of the term. Hence, the dismissive "Evolution is only a theory" reveals on teh part of the issuer a complete misunderstanding of what constitutes a scientific theory.

            Meanings of words are important.

            Microsoft's agressive business tactics are another matter, but that's also another subject. Here, I'm arguing only for respect for, and precision in usage of, language, something I think we can all agree on.
            dsentman@...
          • I don't mind a diversion to discuss usage and syntax

            Meanings of word are important, but so is typing the right one. Did you not find it strange that I defined a noun as an action? In fact, I miswrote and accidentally paired a noun with a verb definition. This oversight was bad proofreading on my part. Thank you for pointing out the discrepancy and my apologies if it caused you any confusion.

            The argument of "innovate vs. invent" (I vs I) is old only in that the verbs and later adverbial forms, but not nouns, have floated around Latin for 2500 years or so. However: If we wish to compare the two actions, then comparing "innovation" to "invention", which are both nouns is improper. Rather one should compare the verb forms: "innovate" to "invent", which are closer to the Latin roots than the two nouns. Therein we find that innovate is "to begin or introduce (something new) for or as if for the first time", whereas "invent" is "to produce or contrive (something previously unknown) by the use of ingenuity or imagination."

            Rephased: to "innovate" is to bring to market, but not necessarily create. To "Invent" is to create out of whole cloth. That we're losing the perception of the differenc in the noun forms speaks volumes about our culture.

            Think? Microsoft demanded their "Freedom to Innovate", not their freedom to produce innovation, and as I said, I have a chuckle everytime I hear others parrot this slogan. That carefully worded demand is the most accurate statement Microsoft has ever made of themselves, but perhaps Microsoft now seeks to redefine the verbs as well?

            We certainly agree on the need for precision. Not all agree, but I certainly do.

            Since we're hot, burnin' doing the syntax dance, let's shoot for a ten from the judges. Shall we?

            I agree that a corporation cannot invent. However, Microsoft is a collective proper noun: a "they", composed of individuals, any one of whom can invent or innovate. I believe the syntax of the paragraph you're bone-picking is correct, but whether you chose my semantic or yours, the opinion is the same. Here I'll substitute to demonstrate:

            "Microsoft's [i]employees[/i] took the XUL invention, wrapped it in a disguise, and percolated the disguised invention through to developers, who with a mediocre knowledge of XUL would assume Microsoft's [i]employees[/i] had actually invented something, rather than merely borrowing. This borrowing without credit is par course for Microsoft's [i]employees[/i]. If an idea isn't nailed down with a patent, and sometimes even if it is, Microsoft's [i]employees[/i], will innovate it and never give credit to the outside inventors. If Microsoft's [i]employees[/i] were to recognize the source of their innovation, and do so publically, fewer creative people would detest their wholesale taking without renumeration."

            Whether one uses a collective noun or a plurality the resulting opinion is the same. Be careful with those collective proper nouns! Sometimes they nibble and sometimes they bite! There was really no need for further precision in the cited case.

            You'll find many here disagree with the need for precise usage in language. I'm not one of those who disagree. I'd love for definitional syntax to be used more frequently. However, here on ZD-Net you and I will be unlikely to find many proponents of writing precision: rants, quips and melodrama are rarely enhanced by precision.

            [i]The last is intended as humour. Please chuckle.[/i]

            PS - We both agree on the definitional exchange that's taking place in the cited use of "theory". The I vs I debate isn't a spot on match, however. The cited comparison of the two meanings of "theory" are a plebeian meaning and a professional meaning. By contrast, the I vs I debate is comparing two plebeian meanings. One certainly expects more precision from the professional term than the common usage and, unlikewise, that two common meanings can be compared on equal terms, yes?

            Excuse any obvious mistakes in this post. As anyone here will tell you, "Monday is jetlag day!"
            John Le'Brecage
          • John L....

            As you gently point out, bone picking isn't nearly as much fun, or readable, if they have to delivered in formal language. Thanks for your very thoughtful reply - your points were extremely well thought out...My bones to pick weren't with you personally.
            dsentman@...
      • PROVE MY POINT

        The point I was making is that Windows
        got to where is was through illegal marketing
        with exclusionary contracts,

        NOT from the software quality.

        IMO the software itself is mediocre.
        cyber_rigger@...
        • You did it again

          Basically, you will not learn anything from Microsoft, because you have defined their software as mediocre, and decided that the ONLY way they succeeded is by hoodwinking the marketplace.

          Until opponents are willing to consider the REAL reasons Microsoft has succeeded (meaning: deciding there is something about Microsoft software that IS useful, good, and unique), they will have to remain content with a desktop market mostly owned by Microsoft, and a server market the Unix share of which slowly grows smaller.

          IMO, it is arrogance in the extreme to claim that most of the world is too stupid to understand that Microsoft software is mediocre.
          John Carroll
          • Example: window manager

            Microsoft's window manager sucks.
            I can do (useful) things with Linux windows managers
            that you can't with Microsoft.


            Here are just a few to try:

            Lower a window to the background with one click.

            Move a window using the side borders or bottom.

            Move a window off of the screen to the top of the screen.

            Type text into partially hidden window without that window rising to the forground.



            Most people don't realize how inferior Microsoft is at some things because they haven't tried anything better.



            Of course you will reply with typical salesman response. "Why would you ever need that?".
            cyber_rigger@...
          • These do not seem...

            ...to be very substantive examples. While some may find them useful, they would seem more to fall more in the category of marginal conveniences than providing a basis for judging the overall worth of Windows Manager. Anyone else out there actually use these features?
            dsentman@...
          • "because they haven't tried anything better."

            And that sir is the reason why Microsoft marketing succeeds ... they put so much stuff into Windows (like a browser) which works ok ... why waste valuable time looking for a replacement. There are better browsers, better "insert item here", but there is okay stuff in Windows.

            If Microsoft was prevented from bundling, the marketplace would be different. But some how they have convinced/paid off the powers at be that because Windows provides customer value, then bundling is okay.
            George Jay
          • not learn anything from Microsoft

            "
            Basically, you will not learn anything from Microsoft, because you have defined their software as mediocre
            "


            It is Microsoft that is now studying Linux, no?
            cyber_rigger@...
          • Of course MS is studying Linux...

            ...as well as every other OS out there. They would be remiss not to do so, just as the various Linux developers would be remiss not to keep track of what MS is doing. It goes with being a successful competitor.
            dsentman@...
          • Agreed

            I don't think the world is 'too stupid.' I think the world is TOO LAZY to try to understand why there are better, more reliable alternatives to MS software. Quite frankly, MS is a huge reason why software development has effectively grown stale over the past decade. The MS dominance has dictated (in order to make money) that 3rd party companies build on what everyone is using. MS has never been a in hurry to upgrade or advance their operating system. Sure, MS Office is the best office suite around, but the BEST VERSION of MS Office doesn't run on Windows, it runs on Mac OS X.

            Good ideas are good ideas, but when a good idea is dictated by a single platform, things are as good as they could be.
            opensourcepro
          • Software development grown stale...

            over the past decade, and it's all due to Microsoft? I must have been sleeping, either that or the software explosion that has occurred in the world over this interval doesn't count. How would 3rd party standards anarchy have resulted in an improved situation overall for end users?
            dsentman@...