The Microsoft Voices (for Innovation) are speaking to me

It's surprising how little ink, virtual or otherwise, the "Voices for Innovation" (VFI) -- a Microsoft-supported group of partners and consumers who are "interested in promoting a positive technology agenda" -- has received.

It’s surprising how little ink, virtual or otherwise, the “Voices for Innovation” (VFI) – a Microsoft-supported group of partners and consumers who are “interested in promoting a positive technology agenda” – has received.

I was reminded again of the existence of the VFI this week, while listening to a web cast of Microsoft’s annual shareholders’ meeting. Microsoft officials noted at the start of the meeting, that every attendee would find on his/her chair an informational sheet about VFI.

“Voices for Innovation is a voluntary community of Microsoft partners, consumers and others from around the world. VFI will help connect those interested in promoting a positive technology agenda directly with policymakers who determine technology policy,” Chief Financial Officer Chris Liddell told meeting attendees. “If you're interested in joining or learning more about Voices for Innovation, please visit the VFI table in the lobby on the way out, or check out the (VFI) website."

VFI also sponsored this week a November 14 breakfast with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and “15 other senior level executives from companies within Europe” that was part of a Cannes Executive Partner Summit. Among topics discussed: “(T)he need to increase the motivation of European innovators to start companies and to take risks in order to compete in the global marketplace.”

(Looks like VFI didn’t have a whole lot of luck in dissuading the European Commission from taking another swing at Microsoft this week, by claiming the company still had yet to fulfill its antitrust obligations from 2004. But that might be an insurmountable task, given Commissioner Nellie Kroes view of the software giant.)

Given that VFI’s star is seemingly on the rise, I asked Microsoft for more details on the group this week. Here’s my mini FAQ (with my Q’s and the responses from a Microsoft corporate spokesman):

Q: When was VFI formed?

A: Spring, 2006

Q: Who is running it?

A: It’s a Web-based community, supported by Microsoft. Participants in the community receive information about subjects related to innovation and government policy, and they are free to voice their views to policymakers – whatever their views may be. People can decide their level of interaction based on their own levels of interest.

Q: Why was it formed?

A: VFI was formed because of the need to have a collective voice of the innovation community into legislative bodies, as expressed by small- and medium- sized businesses, entrepreneurs, and others who want to better understand how IT policy impacts them.

Q: How many members are there currently?

A: Several hundred worldwide.

Q: Who are they?

A: Software developers, ISVs, customers, small- and medium- sized businesses, entrepreneurs and others.

Q: Is it meant to replace things like the Association for Competitive Technology (a Microsoft-backed industry lobbying association formed in the late 1990s)?

A: Voices for Innovation is not related to the Association for Competitive technology. ACT is a trade association that Microsoft is a member of, along with many other IT companies, and which we support. Voices for Innovation is a Web-based community that Microsoft supports.

VFI encourages its members to take a variety of actions, including writing the media, submitting op-ed pieces to newspapers, contact public officials (especially EU ones) and sign a pledge “commit(ing) my voice to securing the future of innovation.” And it offers a number of talking points to help guide members when crafting their viewpoints.

None of these actions is illegal, of course. But as one of the members of the media who might be contacted by the VFIers, I find it a tad disturbing I might be an unknowing target of an orchestrated lobbying effort, rather than a recipient of an unaligned software developer or customer expressing his/her own, uncoached opinion.