- February 5, 2010
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Former Microsoft vice president Dick Brass (insert your own jokes here) wrote a pretty indicting op-ed piece yesterday in the New York Times about how his previous employer’s corporate culture stifles any true innovation coming out of the Redmond monolith:
Microsoft has become a clumsy, uncompetitive innovator. Its products are lampooned, often unfairly but sometimes with good reason. Its image has never recovered from the antitrust prosecution of the 1990s. Its marketing has been inept for years; remember the 2008 ad in which Bill Gates was somehow persuaded to literally wiggle his behind at the camera? …
What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.
He goes on to use as one example the story of how Microsoft’s ClearType technology was resisted by multiple groups within the company, thus apparently undermining any comparative advantages it would’ve provided.
Microsoft, naturally, doesn’t quite agree with Brass’s assertions. It replied that:
At the highest level, we think about innovation in relation to its ability to have a positive impact in the world. For Microsoft, it is not sufficient to simply have a good idea, or a great idea, or even a cool idea. We measure our work by its broad impact. …
[F]or a company whose products touch vast numbers of people, what matters is innovation at scale, not just innovation at speed.
OK, fair enough. Microsoft admits having “a good idea, or a great idea, or even a cool idea” isn’t their top priority, which is another way of saying, “Bite me, Steve Jobs.” No, Microsoft is more concerned with quality. And if quality takes time, then they’re totally fine with that.
The problem is, in the 21st-century world of enterprise and consumer technology, quality doesn’t mean Jack. It’s all about speed, who can get the newest, shiniest product to market the fastest. It doesn’t have to be perfect (the first-gen iPhone certainly wasn’t, and virtually every Google product carried the “Beta” label for years), it just has to exist. If your product isn’t generating headlines on TechCrunch or Mashable, then you’ve lost, simple as that.
But doesn’t “innovation at scale” account for anything? After all, Microsoft is quick to trumpet that Internet Explorer 8 is now the most-used web browser on the Internet. Of course what they fail to mention is that IE6 is still number two. And why is IE6 still so popular? Because thousands of enterprises are stuck with it because their legacy web-based apps simply don’t work with any modern, standards-based browser. In other words, it’s Microsoft’s lack of quality (combined with corporate laziness) that helps keep its numbers as high as they are.
And while Microsoft may be patting itself on the back for the success of Windows 7, it’s completely left in the dust when it comes to smartphones, social networking, cloud computing, and digital media. Even its venerable Internet Explorer continues to lose ground to Firefox and Chrome, a trend that will surely continue as more sites follow Google’s lead of blocking IE6 altogether.
So I guess I could buy the “innovation at scale” argument if the “scale” was more commanding. But it’s not, and the reason is because the quality just isn’t there in many cases.
Brass claims that the lack of innovation is directly due to Microsoft’s “dysfunctional” and inherently competitive corporate culture, which makes any chance of true innovation nearly impossible, and I’m inclined to agree, at least in part. As a former Microsoft employee myself (in enterprise support, not development), I experienced the direct impact of its muddled, ever-changing org chart and constantly-recalibrating corporate visions.
However, Microsoft isn’t really that much different than any other large corporation. Generally the larger (and older) a company gets, the more conservative it becomes; it’s just the way corporate America works. So to blame the company’s mediocrity on its organizational structure is a bit of a cop-out. The fact is, Microsoft just doesn’t fully understand the various industries it’s in, and no amount of org chart reshuffling is going to change that.