Microsoft's unique innovation

Microsoft's unique innovation

Summary: Microsoft invents lots of technology, but it has a certain understanding of the nature of the marketplace that is the source of much innovation at Microsoft, and which open source will have a hard time matching.

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TOPICS: Microsoft
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Microsoft invents lots of technology. It's easy for people seeking to deny the existence of those inventions to ignore that, however, because most of those inventions are buried in piles of pre-existing technology that form the substrate out of which modern software is built. That makes it possible to claim that someone else is responsible for the entire invention, even though they are, at best, responsible for only part of it. It's akin to the argument that a Ford Escort preceded a Formula One racer, and therefore the engineers on that Formula One racer didn't really invent anything because all they are doing is making a car.

But, I've argued that for the past few days, so let's move on to the point of this post, which is to detail an area of invention Microsoft is singularly good at (one that the open source competition will have some difficultly matching). It's not so much of an invention per se. Rather, it's an awareness and understanding of the marketplace that has proved fertile ground for many of the inventions, however incremental, that Microsoft produces on a regular basis. That awareness is that all software markets, however "unrelated" they may seem, have linkages to each other.

When I was scribbling this idea on a scrap of paper towel (I am a chronic note-writer, something obvious to anyone who visits my apartment), I described it this way: "Handhelds relate to desktops relate to cell phones relate to music players relate to servers relate to game consoles relate to databases."

Translated, I'm saying that technology across software domains should be consistent. There should be a standard, however de facto, that works everywhere. Skills should be portable across those markets, so that someone with experience in desktop software development has a decent chance of developing for handhelds. Everything should just work together, and development across all devices should be relatively straightforward to someone with experience in any one of them.

Microsoft has been very good at this. In the media realm, they have their DRM solution, their media formats (both video and audio), tools for generating that media, server and client software, management tools, etc., etc., etc. It's an integrated end to end solution that simply is not matched by anyone else. David Berlind talks about the "unstoppable Microsoft Media Juggernaut." The reason for that unstoppability is the lack of an awareness on anyone else's part of the value of an end to end solution where everything works together using the same technology (or at least an unwillingness to commit resources to the construction of such a solution).

Microsoft, of course, has an incentive to maintain consistency. Technology inconsistencies and incompatibilities are costly within Microsoft, and hinder the growth of Microsoft's market. Granted, Microsoft is known to allow multiple teams to run with similar, if not parallel, ideas in a form of internal competition possible in a company as large as Microsoft. In every case, however, ONE solution emerges, either because one team wins outright (with the competitor getting harvested for parts) or because aspects of each solution get merged into a single solution.

I wonder whether the open source world can match that consistency. Granted, there are movements to make things consistent, such as the LAMP set of technologies for Linux, or the Linux Standard Base project. However, the structure of development for open source products militates against the establishment of any consistent standard.

Open source development relies mostly on voluntary contributions. People don't tend to contribute to ALL open source products (that would be impossible). Rather, they concentrate mostly on the products that interest them.

This results in a developer version of tunnel vision. Since all that matters is the creation of the handful of products to which the volunteer contributes, what matters is the interests of contributors to a single project, not the interests of technology which should span ALL products.

Microsoft long ago standardized on COM. Pretty much every piece of software emerging from Microsoft either consumed COM objects or offered functionality through COM (in fact, that's still the case in a .NET world through easy to use COM Interop). Something comparable doesn't exist in the open source world. Though CORBA exists and is unencumbered by any fixed relationship with ideologically impure organizations (read: proprietary companies), you'd have as much a chance of convincing all open source projects to standardize on CORBA for native code interoperability as you would convincing 1000 cats trapped in a room to run in the same direction once you opened the doors.

Microsoft has a financial interest in consistency, and that forces the resolution of technology battles. Open source lacks that financial interest, at least within the context of the localized product world most open source programmers operate in, which means they won't have the same level of consistency.

That, to my mind, is an innovation on Microsoft's part (or at least a source of innovation). It's one partly derived from Microsoft's size (no other company has the software spread of a Microsoft). However, it also takes an awareness on the part of the people involved that such linkages exist, and are important. That's an innovation I count on Microsoft's scorecard, and one I think open source will have a hard time matching.

Part 2: Most inventions are pieces in a larger puzzle

Part 1: Microsoft and invention misunderstood

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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141 comments
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  • So, Building upon what went before is innovation,

    or is the innovation in attempting to make it impossible for others to build upon what went before?

    Oh! By the way. the American Ford Escort was a product of the 1980s, the British Ford Escort was a product of the 1960s, and Formula One automobile racing existed before World War, possibly before World War One.
    Update victim
  • Leveraging monopoly = innovation? Huh?

    So with Microsoft trying to leverage it's monopoly across all platforms and devices is innovation?

    And the idea of consistency across all platforms and devices is innovation? Hardly. This is a concept that's been around and implemented by companies and individuals since well before Bill Gates was plotting his world domination while a pimple faced geek at Harvard.

    Finally, consistency across all platforms and devices boil down to open standards, as well as open source software. The internet is a perfect example of this. And, truth be told, Microsoft is diametrically opposed to open standards, it always has been and always will be. Microsoft is all about making their own standards and file systems and technology the "de facto" standard, so they can maintain/gain market lock down, and continue the monopoly. This is not innovation.

    All MS coding is geared towards that strategy. They take open standards or steal other people's IP, then embrace and extend it and refine it into their own technology, then try to brand that as "innovation".

    Complete nonsense.
    boobasaurus
    • Your post is the nonsense.

      If as you say MS is simply relying upon their monopoly then there would never be any improvements or upgrades. Such is simply not the case...
      No_Ax_to_Grind
      • Improvements or upgrades

        Of course they improve or upgrade, whenever they "innovate" or buy out those who are truly creative.
        Anti_Zealot
        • Between a rock and a hard place.

          In the past few years MS has been faced with a situation where they are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they build something internally they are "staling eveyones ideas", and if they buy new tech they are accused of "using their monopoly to take over the world".

          All in all though I am guessing the small developer prefers being bought out. (I would!!!)
          No_Ax_to_Grind
          • Well, that is true

            It does become harder to remain "just competitive" when you grow too large like they did.

            Still, they would deserve a lot of client's admiration by building _entirely_ new technologies. And this is not what people observe.(No, I'm not talking about Joe Average's perception, I'm talking about who looks carefully enough.) They mainly try to compete by replacing other player's products, while MS's sheer size and resources for advertising do give them an undeniable advantage.

            Windows Server VS Unix/Linux
            .NET VS Java
            Metro VS PDF

            One can see control is their main motivation, rather than just maintaining profit.

            The only breakthrough I can really give them full credit for is Bill's baby, the TabletPC. That adaptation of the laptop into a hybrid between an over-sized Palmtop and a Laptop really showed some creativity. A shame that problems came executing the idea...
            Anti_Zealot
          • I don't think that is completely true

            I don't have a problem with Microsoft creating new software. The problem is when they "integrate" it or include it as part of the package. The firewall and anti-virus are prime examples. If they would compete like everyone else, by selling their products, then I would not have a problem.
            Patrick Jones
          • You raised a good question

            Opensource is often criticised by potentially supplying people with free software. Yet, many of the people who criticise them, also applaud Microsoft for competing by also offering software.
            Anti_Zealot
          • I guess I contradicted myself..

            since I like Open Source and free software. I should have said, "by not including it with Windows." After thinking about it, I wouldn't have a problem with them offering it for free as a download. At least that way people would have to knowingly get their products. Just like they have to do with other free products. That way, Microsoft is still competing.

            I know some will say that Microsoft can use Windows any way they want. That is true and I am not saying a law should be passed. They will also say that people are still able to use other, competing software. That is true. But most people will not. Even if the other products are superior.
            Patrick Jones
          • But time and again, users have rejected pieces parts.

            I know it is hard to imagine but the majority see a real value in the bundle Microsoft sells. Even as a developer (heck especially as a developer) its a huge advantage to know that the pieces I need are preinstalled on all Windows machines. (Media Player being one of them, IE is another one.)

            Consider if you will how poor an experiance Joe Average would have if he got his new Windows box sans a browser and had to drive to the store to get one just so he do a download. (Or even to have to go into Add/Remove programs and try and figure out which parts he wants/needs.)
            No_Ax_to_Grind
          • I agree, in theory

            But tell me, when does it stop? When are the parts they include too much? Should Office be included? How about Money? Why not just ship Windows with every piece of Microsoft software available?

            Why did Microsoft have to add Anti-Virus and Firewall when most, if not all, new systems ship with either Norton Security suite or McAffee Security Suite? While I don't know their exact reasons, I have a good guess.

            As for knowing pieces are pre-installed, you could still include those as part of your setup just like people did for 3.1, 95, etc. And you would still need to check if they have the version you need. I think some companies are getting lazy because of this. I have seen some software that told me I didn't have something they needed and instead of including it, they made me go download it. IIRC, it was a part they could include in their setup.
            Patrick Jones
          • Bundle Microsoft Sells?

            Why does it have to come from Microsoft? As long as it works (in your case, as long as it works with Microsoft's OSs), most people don't care where it comes from. OEMs are easily capable of bundling software that works with whatever operating system they offer. In fact, it was common for Netscape to be bundled with PCs from OEMs before MS strongarm tactics. And as has been pointed out, OEMs seem perfectly capable of bundling AV software right now, so again, why does this need to come from MS (especially since, it is primarily their buggy software that is so vulnerable)?
            ~1iota
          • Thinking in a vacuum...

            You are forgetting the court cases between MSFT and Stax, MSFT
            and Sun, just to name a few. Those were instances where MSFT
            out-and-out lifted ideas from others and had to battle it out in
            court. They have the money to pay their way through the court
            cases so eventually they "win".

            I suppose the most telling of MSFT's in-your-face attitude about
            stealing ideas is when they were able to beat Apple to the patent
            office concerning the wheel control on the iPod. In an interview I
            read the MSFT VP's comments were "we are willing to license our
            innovations to those who want to buy it". It is no wonder the IT
            industry as a whole has began its migration from MSFT to
            anything else - no matter the cost.
            sunergeos
      • Your post is nonsense

        I'll point to an over used example ... Internet Explorer. There have been no improvements or upgrades until FireFox, err umm, until competition came along.
        George Jay
    • Simple answer: yes it is.

      (nt)
      IT Scion
  • Microsoft has no interest in CONSISTENCY

    Microsoft's financial interest is in the mote. Pure and simple their activities are designed to make it more difficult to work outside of MS's world of products.
    Robert Crocker
    • Agreed. Indeed, MS's own Office product has

      many inconsistencies with menu layout and has yet to fix them to match their one-time mantra of "Several applications that work as one" or whatever.

      And you're right about the money. That's all MS cares about, even though they say otherwise. Their actions do not follow suit. And too many people don't look at the actions either. (which is why Microsoft is still loved)

      Amongst other issues, but I'm fatigued right now...
      HypnoToad
      • Loved? As in hostages love their captor?

        The term escapes me at the moment, but there is a condition that
        hostages find themselves during their captivity when they begin to
        sympathize with their captors. It isn't love.
        sunergeos
        • Stockholm Syndrome (nt)

          NT
          Scrat
    • Consistent with 90% of the market.

      And the various distros of say Linux are anything but consitent. Here's a test, produce a Word document and an OO document and send them to 100 people. Care to guess which one can be opened and viewed by the majority???
      No_Ax_to_Grind