Can Microsoft innovate? Should we care?

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: Emerging Tech, CXO, Microsoft

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  • Typically, they'll talk up some idea they've stolen as theirs

    and then completely under-deliver.

    Why would anyone expect anything different?
    • Looks at Windows market share...

      ...yup, they sure failed to deliver there!
      Sleeper Service
      • How about.......

        Windows Server, Exchange, SQL, Office, and Windows Mobile? Are they failing too? I'm sure these have all made profits at this point.
      • They succeeded in a con game

        MS managed to gain market share by coming up with a product to fill a niche then expanded with prioritized code. Now they put out crap with the knowledge that their market share will help it float no matter how bad it is because no company wants to toss out their already sizable investment in the past MS software. If anyone comes up with a viable answer in desktop OS that will run MS apps MS will fall flat on ist face, actually an event that is long over due.
      • Re: Windows market share

        "DOS Computers manufactured by companies such as IBM,
        Compaq, Tandy, and others are by far the most popular, with
        about 70 million machines in use worldwide. Macintosh fans, on
        the other hand, may note that cockroaches are far more
        numerous than humans, and that numbers alone do not denote a
        higher life form." -New York Times, November 26, 1991.

        And still true today!
      • You are correct...

        They failed to deliver an OS worth its cost. But the public has also failed to demand better.
      • The Rot Within.

        Microsoft's fabulous market share (and there's no denying that) is disguising the deterioration of their business method which has been rotting since the emergence of Open Source. But no matter how big they are, they are increasingly becoming the odd man out.
      • Good usual I'm wrong... Thanks - nt

    • MS is smart enough to realize

      that the money is not in innovation, but rather proliferation and marketing.
      Michael Kelly
      • And a scam

        I recently had a run in with MS. Windows XP on my home computer, mysteriously popped up out of the blue with a message that I had "made too many hardware changes to my computer since activating windows". I called their online activation number, only to be told that the activation code had been used too many times. I thought this odd since I have only used it on the one computer and then I have activated it only twice (once on initial install 3 years ago, and once on the same machine after replacing the mother board that got fried). Then came the wonderful world of MS wisdom. The geniuses at MS suggested that I needed to go buy a NEW OS. I guess this is their new marketing tool, to tell the customer, in effect....,

        "If our software fails to function, just come on down and buy aother one just like it."

        Looks like MS has adopted the theme of an old Jerry Reed song,

        "You can get nothing for a Nickle and twice as much for a Dime."
        • Dude dude dude

          Your problems stemmed from the fact that the OS license you held was an OEM license. An OEM license is what is bundled with many computers at the time of purchase. They're cheap, activations are limited or scrutinized heavily, and you are limited in the hardware that you can change out. I.e. if your motherboard and CPU fail, your OS license is no good anymore.
          • Well that is a ripoff

            No wonder MS is having such a hard time. The motor just stopped in my car. I better replace the car. That makes more sense that replacing the spark plugs.
          • You make it sound..

            Like it's okay??
  • Why start now?

    Microsoft did a good job building power on the base of a stupied IBM, and a US corporate market desparate for a standard. They should now quietly fade away.
    • Why?

      Sleeper Service
      • Because?

        Why do you need an actual reason to respond to a story on ZDNet?

        Each day, it seems these forums have become active with those who type LONG before composing a clear or relevant thought.

        I am excited to hear his reason for such as asinine statement, if one truly exists.
      • The why is simple

        Microsoft built up a snowball effect of self-propogation based simply on the fact that they got picked by IBM back in 1981. It is very difficult to change a standard, even when it is inferior, and/or is holding back development.

        Since other software is more innovative, and stable, it would be best for everybody (except, of course, the MS fanboys) for Microsoft to stop producing inferior software, and leave more room for superior products to gain share.

        It only makes sense to stick to a standard when it contributes to your welfare. The only people who are benefitting from Microsoft are those in the huge industry which has built up to support Microsoft products. Sad bunch they are!
    • yeah right

      Microsoft will be around for very long time to come.
  • RE: Can Microsoft innovate? Should we care?

    I remember Gates talking about being innovative. The problem was that their innovations were at the expense of the standards. That happened during the browser wars etc. Whenever they went up against a competitor they would make the add to the standard and it became proprietorial. That seemed to be their version of innovation. They lost with Java.
    • Microsoft and standards

      When a standard permits interoperability while still leaving each company able to compete, that's an advantage.

      When a company expands on a standard to add features which produce sales, that's an advantage.


      When a company changes a standard-in-fact as Microsoft did with Java, that's inappropriate. Even though Microsoft's changes were improvements in Java.

      When standards are created by competitors in order to reduce the number of features available, as with the W3C on browsers and the competitors/antagonists who devised ODF, that, too, is inappropriate.

      Standards can be commercial politics by other means, and Microsoft is not the only company to seek advantage.

      Standards are not ideal solutions.
      Anton Philidor