Microsoft Innovation. If it falls, does it make a sound?

New York Times has kicked up some serious dust in the Microsoft ethos around whether or not the company does innovate.

I often have found myself at a cross-roads of agreeing and/or disagreeing with people like Dick around the term "innovation". I say this as I pretty much agree with Dick's arguments in the NYT, but at the same time I can't but help remember the amounts of innovation I saw inside the company - especially in the last 3 years.

I look at Microsoft Surface and can't but help wonder at the actual spark of innovation around this product. I state this as I once interviewed Mark Coleran, a guy who's job was to build Fantasy User Interfaces for Hollywood.

In this interview I ask Mark about how he came up with the inspiration for the Surface like table in the movie "The Island" and his response was:

There has been alot of confusion over the table in The Island. Most people have no idea of developmental timelines and the table itself was not a guess at what might be. It was actually production themselves who had said it was going to be a table type screen. There was a guy called John Underkoffler from MIT involved as well working on how people might interact with such a device. No doubt some influences came from the work going on there, including that of people like Jeff Han. I myself when I got involved at the design stage, looked over a massive body of work previously done on these type of devices and desktop. It was a relatively easy process to draw elements together and combine in such a way as to make it look like a realistic device.

Mark was able to piece together what he found in the industry at the time to help shape the story of a futuristic movie like "The Island" well before the Microsoft Surface table was shown to the world. I ask the question, did Microsoft Innovate with the Surface table? or have they simply democratised the concept of Multit-touch to the unwashed masses?

I look at Silverlight and I know there is actually some pure amounts of innovation from my comrades in Engineering. I have personally witnessed these guys create life from 1's and 0's where its competitor, Flash, simply had no clue.

Is Silverlight innovation? I mean the actual name "Silverlight" (aka another word for Flash is ...a Silver Light...) is it really innovation or just really good at again, democratising something that most have had the concept of seeing before.

I look at the XBOX Natal and think to myself, ok that's innovative right? yet let's be realistic the concept of using your body and having a game react isn't anything new really (the concept in theory has been around) and would it of come about had it not been for the Nintendo Wii pushing that envelope further?

Innovation is a term I think gets lost in product shipment dates and timelines and there is a multitude of ways in which one could carve up Microsoft's history around innovation.

I think Microsoft does innovate but only from concepts that have been pioneered OUTSIDE the company. When they do produce results from these efforts they in turn democratise it to the millions of customers around the world that are typically held hostage by premium costs associated with the advancement in such technology.

To go back to Dick's article in the NYT, I think the problem isn't the innovation its telling the story around what Microsoft is doing in the market that's the over-arching problem here. I think splitting hairs on who moved first is simply academic, the problem I personally see being both inside and outside now is that decoding WHAT Microsoft is today and Tomorrow is getting difficult for customers to embrace.

Take this into account and it fuels a lot of ignorance and mistrust around the company, so that if one day it truly does purely innovate, nobody will notice. As it's getting lost in al the signal of "Look at me, Look at me" marketing from the company.

Is marketing to blame for lack of innovation?

Frank Shaw, VP of Comms replied to Dick's article, it basically is in my mind a "rar rar rar go Microsoft" response. I spoke to Frank via email just before I left Microsoft and told him why I left the company, as at the time he sent out an email to all of Marketing which basically was "Stop making cheesy dumb ass movies please, you're hurting our brand".

I think the problem with Microsoft is its marketing teams. The more I interacted with these folks the more I realised just how disconnected they are from their audience. In that, I've worked in Marketing before where we would meet with the customers we spoke to, we would analyse their behavioural patterns and lastly we would react to feedback from them daily if not monthly.

I simply didn't see this inside Microsoft marketing, especially in the Developer Division. When you'd ask folks about who the target audience is for Silverlight, you would get mixed responses. Responses that typically where buzzword bingo ...

"Technical Decision Makers are our guys!"
"Business Decision Makers..."
"Both, TDB and BDM...TDB for RIA, BDM for Video!.."

I simply would shake my head and look forward to my visits back home to Australia where I would jump on some planes, visit people from all around the country and just listen. I listened to how they got started, I listen to what they love and hated about Microsoft and lastly I listened to what they needed. TDB or BDM folks never reared their heads once so that for me was the first clue - lack of depth from team, noted.

This is important as if these folks are targeting the wrong style of audience or albeit, talking at them NOT with them, then in turn you loose the translation of "What Just Happened" - or in simpler terms "If a tree fell in the forest and nobody was around to hear it, did it actually fall?"

I know there is innovative things happening within the company and I could cite them until I am sick of the sound of my own voice. The reality however is 90% of my time outside Microsoft is telling people this message now that I am outside of Microsoft. I tell them and watch as they either argue the point or in turn show a facial expression of pure surprise and follow with remarks "Really? i didn't know that?"

I left Microsoft simply because my division is probably one of the best at celebrating mediocrity but also I feared what I would eventually turned into, a person who is at peace with "Good Enough".

That is the core to why Microsoft suffers from the lack of innovation label as in truth risky innovation is typically replaced by "Good enough" mediocrity - "Don't worry, we'll get it right in V3, just ship V1".

Apple is a company that strikes me as a brand that rejects "Good enough" it simple expects an end to end execution of an idea.

Microsoft differs, take a look at their websites. You have every team jockeying for your attention all being inconsistent and not helpful in the way they portray their messages around whats new?

Apple, you have one. If someone in iTunes team wants to create their own website? its simply "fuck off, and fall into line" and then its executed with precision as to what the story is behind the newest shiny object. It's competitor, Microsoft, simply fires up 3-4 websites all for the same concept.

Point is. Innovation happens, you just cant' seem to decode where it lives and I think a guy like Frank, VP of Comms needs to start firing people and soon as Innovation isn't the problem inside the company, its getting the message out which is.

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  • Joe

    Some great posts this week! All spot on.

    I speak with Microsoft folks every week and I think the marketing team is the weakest link. I would like to see them start a regular blog to gather brand feedback (Windows 7 parties anybody?).

    That aside, the real problem is cohesive strategy. Look at the great technology coming out of the company for developers. It’s a great foundation for applications that aren’t battleship gray, but the application teams largely ignore it. At the end of the day it’s all about UX. If developers are asking for better tools to write better applications, with better UX then why isn’t the other half of Microsoft also asking?

    Why add multi-touch to Windows 7 without a touch friendly shell? Why demonstrate a Slate without a new shell? Why not use your own skinnable UX technology to target multiple devices? Why let the Zune team use their own UI Framework? Why not convert MCE to WPF or Silverlight? Why isn’t Live Essentials written in Silverlight? Where are the app stores…
    I could go on…

    MS need to stop spending time validating feature lists by surveying existing customers, and spend more time listening to people that would never buy their products.

  • alexx_kidd

    I’m a commitef Mac guy myself,OS X is the best stuff out there,but I must admit that guys at Microsoft Entertainment department really make innovative stuff(unlike all other microsoft departments..),like the xbox and of course the wonderful Zune UI.I’m glad Microsoft wiil make this their next mobile phone operating system.

    But then of course..iphone 4.0 will come out,and everything will be back to Apple’s hand.Till then..waiting for my macbook pro i7 to come out 😉

    I see microsoft starting to make some moves here,with the zune guys and the new,wonderful bing maps.We’ll see!