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How Infighting Hampers Innovation At Microsoft 450

Posted by timothy
from the rather-a-broad-brush dept.
Garabito writes "Dick Brass, former vice-president at Microsoft, published an op-ed in The New York Times, where he states that 'Microsoft has become a clumsy, uncompetitive innovator' and how 'it has lost share in Web browsers, high-end laptops and smartphones.' He attributes this situation to the lack of a true system for innovation at Microsoft. Some former employees argue that Microsoft has a system to thwart innovation. He tells how promising and innovative technologies like ClearType and the original TabletPC concept become crippled and sabotaged internally, by groups and divisions that felt threatened by them."
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How Infighting Hampers Innovation At Microsoft

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  • rip-offs (Score:3, Informative)

    by pydev (1683904) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @06:57PM (#31028290)

    ClearType had plenty of prior art, so I don't think it counts as significant innovation.

    TabletPC wasn't just a "me too" project, Microsoft actually actively sabotaged their competitors to drive them out of the market and then tried to grab the market for themselves (and failed).

    So, if these are the kinds of "promising innovative technologies" that fail at Microsoft, let's just all say "good riddance".

  • I work there now... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 04, 2010 @07:01PM (#31028318)

    I work at MS now. It's a great job for solid steady employment, but it's definitely not the place to go for innovation. Every department is run by high rolling MBA types, most of who were liberal arts majors in college, who go out on extravagant "off site" meetings where they wave around marketing studies to each other to determine the minimum amount of features and quality assurance to put into our products to maximize profit, as if running technology business were the same as running a 50's era factory. Making the product "better" or producing something you have pride in comes secondary, and no consideration is given to the second and third order effects their decisions have on the overall health of the company or its products.

  • by pow2clk (1040104) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @07:24PM (#31028558)

    ... using sabotage (like Nancy Kerrigan) . . .

    Not to distract from your overall point, which is well taken, but in the interest of fairness and accuracy, I feel I must point out that it was Tonya Harding who sabotaged Nancy Kerrigan.

  • Re:Not surprising? (Score:3, Informative)

    by RichM (754883) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @07:27PM (#31028596) Homepage

    They came up with a solid product pretty quickly when their pensions were threatened.

    Fixed that for you.

  • Re:rip-offs (Score:4, Informative)

    by sconeu (64226) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @07:31PM (#31028646) Homepage Journal

    TabletPC wasn't just a "me too" project, Microsoft actually actively sabotaged their competitors to drive them out of the market and then tried to grab the market for themselves (and failed).

    What are you talking about ?

    Go! Computer.

    Read Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure [amazon.com].

    Granted, it's a touch biased because the author was the founder/CEO of Go!, but it still shows how MS sabotaged competitors.

  • by JustNiz (692889) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @07:31PM (#31028668)

    Dunno what _you_ mean by high-end computers, but of the top 500 super computers, 446 run some flavour of linux, only 5 run a Microsoft OS.

    Reference:
    http://www.top500.org/stats/list/34/osfam [top500.org]

  • Software Darwinism (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 04, 2010 @07:39PM (#31028760)

    I once knew a guy who worked at Microsoft, and after his stock made him enough money to no longer have to worry about bills, he left so he could focus on what he enjoyed. One thing he told me that many people don't understand about Microsoft is that the company *wants* its teams to treat each other as competitive threats, because it allows a sort of "software Darwinism" - his words not mine - to take place. As a result, he said that teams don't tend to work each each other unless there is a clear net benefit for them, because their jobs - and thus their ability to feed their families, etc - is on the line otherwise. That also means they tend to want to work on "safe" products.

  • Re:rip-offs (Score:5, Informative)

    by Entropy2016 (751922) <entropy2016@yahoo . c om> on Thursday February 04, 2010 @09:04PM (#31029572)

    Subpixel rendering was invited by IBM in 1988. Windows just brought it to public attention. Furthermore, Mac OS X had subpixel rendering. OS X Server 1.0 was released in 1999, and Mac OS 10.0 "cheetah" was released in March 2001. Windows XP was released in October 2001.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subpixel_rendering [wikipedia.org]
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mac_OS_X [wikipedia.org]
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_XP [wikipedia.org]

    You've been corrected with a citation. Please stop spreading bullcrap. Thank you.

  • by LibertineR (591918) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @09:10PM (#31029646)
    6.7 Billion in profits in the last quarter.
  • And it's pretty hard to argue against the fact that Microsoft was the one who shipped a GUI to the most people

    You misspelled "Apple, Atari, and Commodore" there. Windows wasn't really usable before the '90s... the Mac, Amiga, and ST had seven good years "delivering the future" before Windows 3.1 shipped. And while the Mac cost more than the PC it was Commodore and Atari who were the lowest bidders back then.

  • by Blakey Rat (99501) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @09:21PM (#31029762)

    I mean the ribbon interface is just a different menubar layout.

    No, it's not. Try actually using it.

    Shadow copy has been almost standard practice in the server world way before Microsoft ever did it.

    No, it hasn't. Novell had an undelete function, which is a lot closer than your RAID example. If you had cited that, I'd have been more impressed... but it's still not equivalent to Shadow Copy. (And RAID? Seriously? Do you even know what Shadow Copy *is*?)

    Umm nope. Linux has always supported virtual terminals. You can have multple concurrent sessions under different users going on and switch between them without logging in and out at all.

    Fair enough; though I've never seen a Linux distro with that option enabled.

    I beleive it was acutally Sony who did it first with the PS2 but reagardless, innovative?

    The PS2 HD expansion came out long after the Xbox was already popular.

    Arc Mouse? I'm not ever going to believe that just slightly changing the shape of a mouse is true innovation.

    The fact that it folds is the innovative part. Do you have any familiarity with these products at all? So far you've been wrong on pretty much every detail...

    The only assertion you've made that *may* be right is the one about fast user switching in Linux, but since I've never seen that feature enabled on any of the Linux distros I've used, and your poor track record, I'm inclined to call BS on that as well.

    Well I would if it was an actual product people could really buy.

    It is. It's B2B, but what's stopping you from buying the "actual product" right now? Nothing. Hell, our company owns two of them... how did we get them? We bought them from Microsoft.

    All that aside, fine: tell me what you consider an innovative product? Give me an example.

  • rational ignorance (Score:3, Informative)

    by epine (68316) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @09:32PM (#31029858)

    About a year ago I had my Telus account switched to electronic billing. I tend to do my electronic banking in the wee hours. Half of my attempts to access my Telus account electronically resulted in text like this:

    Unfortunately, we were unable to process your request. Our site is currently experiencing technical difficulties. Please try again later or contact a TELUS Customer Service Representative at 666-6666. We apologize for any inconvenience.

    This was annoying, as the email notification does not include the balance owing. What I wanted was the email to contain an encrypted PDF of my paper statement so I never have to log onto their crappy web site. Nope, that's not possible.

    Finally I call up my innovation-loving Telus rep. to complain about these recurrent electronic account service outages. I refrained from pointing out that the telephone industry *invented* uptime in the first place and that their billing computers seem not to take a holiday in the wee hours every other night.

    I said if you can't send my billing details through email, then send me the paper bill as well until you figure out how to keep your electronic service online. To which the answer was "I can do that, but I'll first have to cancel your electronic billing".

    What? Logically incompatible? Or a return visit of my old Bell Canada nightmare?

    When Bell Canada first brought in DTMF dialing, they charged a low price for rotary dial phones, a higher price for DTMF phones, and the highest price of all for phones with keypads that dialed by clicking. Not for the phone itself, but for your monthly service, depending on the type of phone you chose to own. From their side, their equipment couldn't really tell the rotary dial clicks from the simulated clicks of a keypad phone, so this fee only applied if you were dumb enough to tell someone at Bell Canada that you owned the contraband device.

    The logic looked something like this: tone dialing is new and sexy, so we have to charge more for it. However, it costs us more to support the old analog dialing equipment, and we *want* the customers to move to the new technology, so we have to charge *even more* to customers who by sneaky means obtain the convenience of keypad dialing, while sticking it to us for charging more to access a system that actually costs us less to deliver.

    If Telus gave me combination billing (both paper and electronic) then as the customer, I'd have the best of both worlds: an electronic copy of my records when their system is working, and a paper backup when it isn't. This would cost Telus more and might encourage them to keep their electronic records system online more than a few dark hours a month so I eventually call back and cancel the paper.

    She asked me at the end of the call if her support had been helpful (clearly a mandatory call phase). I replied, "you've personally been very nice, but clearly your organization has created Byzantine rules that prevent you from offering me the sensible solution I requested". She hung up sounding sour as if my response had not been polite.

    Since then I've purchased an OCR scanner and I'm probably going back to paper billing. I can have searchable records of numbers called without the hassle of navigating the arbitrary rules of the world according to Telus.

    And arbitrarily they are, unless you group them under "clever ways to drill a hole in your pocket".

    From CRTC orders TELUS to rebate customers [itnewslink.com]

    In November 2007, TELUS began charging close to half a million customers in Alberta and British Columbia a monthly network-access fee of $2.95. These customers had not signed up for a long-distance plan, either with TELUS or another company, and the charge applied even if they did not make long-distance calls or if they made long-distance calls using only dial-around long-distance services.

    The CRTC had to step in and bust their

  • by devent (1627873) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @10:24PM (#31030226) Homepage

    The only assertion you've made that *may* be right is the one about fast user switching in Linux, but since I've never seen that feature enabled on any of the Linux distros I've used, and your poor track record, I'm inclined to call BS on that as well.

    It's enabled on every Linux distribution. For example Kubuntu Karmic, go to the menu, leave, and there is switch user. Same thing with Ubuntu, but I can't recall the Gnome layout. That was easy with KDE3 and it's easy with KDE4.

    Virtual terminals were always enabled, too, with the Ctrl+Alt+F1 to Fx keys.

  • Re:news flash (Score:5, Informative)

    by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @11:16PM (#31030526)

    MS-DOS? Not remotely innovative. The well-known story is that Gates snuck in under the radar to grab the contract for the IBM PC's operating system from Digital Research (developers of the then-dominant CP/M OS, and probable favourites for the job). Of course, Gates didn't actually have an OS, and then had to go out and buy one from a small software company [wikipedia.org]. Which was basically just an unremarkable workalike/blatant-ripoff (delete according to opinion) of CP/M anyway. That became PC-DOS/MS-DOS 1, of course, but you'll note that the interest here is in how Gates grabbed the contract, not in that totally unremarkable and uninnovative (rip)off-the-shelf OS.

    This is not entirely correct, although it is close. Bill Gates has successfully sold IBM's PC division on a couple of compilers for their new PC, but IBM didn't yet have an OS. They went to the CEO of Digital Research, but he was put off by IBM's boilerplate nondisclosure agreement (it may have been more than just an NDA, I don't remember exactly). There are a couple of different stories about how he responded to IBM's overture, but the end result was that the IBM guys felt like he didn't want to do business with them.
    Now IBM had decided to use a new chip from Intel at the core of their PC. There was no OS yet written to work on it. At the same time, a small company in Seattle was developing machines that used this new Intel chip. They needed an OS for it. One of their employees wrote a quick and dirty OS (QDOS) that would do for them to get their machine out the door and working. The plan being that if someone developed a better OS for the chip later they would buy it and start using it. I forget how Bill Gates learned of this OS, but he promptly went to this company and bought the rights to distribute it. QDOS was not a rip off of CP/M, but it had enough similarities that when Digital Research made DR-DOS, Microsoft couldn't stop them. I'm sure there are others on here are more familiar with the details.


    However, your main point is correct MS has never been an innovator (except maybe a bit with their compilers in the early days).

  • Re:news flash (Score:4, Informative)

    by Antique Geekmeister (740220) on Friday February 05, 2010 @12:24AM (#31030990)

    That wasn't due to innovation. That was plain old software piracy: they hired David Cutler from DEC, one of the authors of VMS, and stole its internals like a pirate robbing Spanish galleons. The resulting lawsuits are one of the reasons NT ran so well on Alphas: its internals had frankly been writen for Alphas originally by Cutler and the personal he hired away from DEC. Sadly, DEC thought they could take a lump settlement and continue to out-innovate Microsoft with their Alpha hardware and its upgrades, but Intel stole core technologies of the Alpha to make the Pentium.

    The result was the fundamentally crippled, by comparison, NT on Pentium. But it was so much cheaper and accessible for consumer grade products, and worked so much better with Microsoft's core office suite, that the results left DEC's "continuing innovation" on the scrap heap.

  • Re:news flash (Score:3, Informative)

    by srealm (157581) <prez&goth,net> on Friday February 05, 2010 @01:28AM (#31031494) Homepage

    Having met some of the Adobe guys involved in the above rift between Adobe and Apple, I heard the Adobe side of the story.

    Basically Apple came to adobe and say they were only going to support Objective C, and Adobe had to re-write all their products in Objective C to support the Apple platform, and Adobe more or less said "I don't think so."

    There was more to it than that, and the rift went to the highest levels (big egos involved), an interesting tale. But basically Adobe was one company big enough with popular enough products to teach Apple a bit about eating humble pie. This of course was before OSX, the iPod, and basically the recent rise of Apple again, who is once again on a firmer footing to dictate any terms they like (thus ITMS).

  • Re:news flash (Score:3, Informative)

    by iluvcapra (782887) on Friday February 05, 2010 @03:08AM (#31032060)

    (Gary Kildall?), which person didn't show up. Surfing or something. Wasn't interested in meeting the suits.

    Gary Kildall, the writer of the CP/M operating system, wanted to go flying that morning. QDOS was written at a shop called "Seattle Computer Products" by a worthy named Tim Patterson.

    Notice how every one of these stories involves someone at the very zenith of their career blowing-off a meeting with the punk Bill Gates. This general lackadaisy strongly hints at just how insignificant people though PCs were going to be at the time, and how BillG primarily deserves credit for being the only person in the room at the time who didn't think the Personal Computer, as a concept, wasn't a total joke. Even the people who wrote CP/M and QDOS thought PCs were a joke, and that their creations were just weird redheaded stepchildren of their minicomputer OSs. Only Gates and Jobs thought personal computing would go anywhere, and while Jobs was and remains in love with the idea of PC as a Personal Information Appliance, and BillG was the only one that thought you could make a huge business out of selling the software, completely ignoring hardware manufacturing.

  • Re:Top Down (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:29AM (#31032346)

    That is one part of it. In large corporations each department gets a budget and is competing against other departments. Those departments have pecking orders, play favorites.

    I've seen it happen a few times. Many years ago a friend in work built as a side project a web based office suite. She wrote the core of it in under a month. Demonstrated it to management. They loved it. However another manager had a team of 15 working on the exact project for the last couple of months. The team got taken off him and he was assigned to her and 3 others. He was so pissed it was incredible. The whole project got created in under 3 months, worked perfectly and the manager basically killed it at that point. It never shipped.

    I had a similar issue where I wrote an app as a bet with a friend that would basically replace a department of people. It was also killed for obvious reasons. The real kicker was a few months later another department got a couple of million budget to write the exact same thing. I got the pleasure of demo'ing my application to them. :/

    That is just two examples, I've seen numerous pettiness happening between managers killing projects and careers at the expense of the corporation.

  • Re:Rapid Me-Too-ism (Score:3, Informative)

    by gujo-odori (473191) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:48AM (#31032436)

    I'm also an ex-Microsoftie, and I got there by acquisition. To say the least, it was not at all my cup of tea.

    TFA is pretty accurate that it has a culture problem. The culture there is really pathological in so many ways. A former co-worker of mine who immigrated to the United States from the USSR said the propaganda level was strikingly similar to living in a communist country. I completely agreed with him, having lived in one myself for a while.

    When my former employer was acquired by Microsoft (we were in the security area) and we started benchmarking our product against Microsoft's own and were blowing theirs away despite the fact that we were using data we'd never seen before or trained on, did they say "Wow, you guys rock!!" - um, no. They questioned our methodology, our stats, everything. It was incomprehensible to them that we could be that much better, right from the gate, against a product they'd been working on for years. It took months before they gave up and grudgingly admitted we were right. "Not Invented Here" runs deep in Redmond. Really, really deep. Despite the fact that they have indeed bought our copied for almost everything in their product line. Go figure.

    As far as the culture of acquired companies goes, the MSFT approach is to exterminate it. That part is quick and brutal. Resistance truly is futile and you will be assimilated. Or you'll quit. I chose the latter.

    As TFA says, there are thousands of really smart people at Microsoft, and it's not just the engineers, either. HR people, admin assistants, everywhere you look, people are really sharp. Even the receptionists are the best I've run across, and they have great things like at least one IT desk in every building where you can go if you're having problems with your computer. Kind of like an internal Apple Genius Bar. That's a tremendous idea.

    The problem is, Microsoft has these armies of really, really smart, innovative people but the whole that is produced from all this intelligence and innovativeness is way, way less than the sum of the parts. IMO most of those supersmart people ought to be at Apple rather than MSFT, or at Google (neither of which is my current employer). They could really shine there and get a lot more of there best ideas out there and make a difference. Sounds like Dick Brass should have worked at Apple or Google, too, really.

    My present employer is another big company whose name is a household word, and in pretty much every way it's better than Microsoft. I got there by acquisition too, and I love it. It's a great place to work.

    Culturally, not only has the culture of my acquired employer not been extinguished, we have actually had some success at spreading it to our broader business unit while at the same time absorbing the best of the new culture. IMO there is no way that could happen at MSFT.

    This doesn't mean I think Microsoft can be written off as a competitor. They remain hypercompetitive are very good at exploiting their market dominance to drive out other solutions and push mixed shops to go all MSFT. I can't imagine why on earth a shop would want to convert from anything else to Exchange, but I see it happen all the time. Rarely do I hear of anyplace dumping Exchange for something else, even when something else would be a better solution.

    But an innovator? Nah, Microsoft just ain't that. They never were, really.

  • Re:news flash (Score:3, Informative)

    by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Friday February 05, 2010 @08:02AM (#31033250)

    If I remember my lore correctly, when Gates first set up a meeting with IBM over QDOS, he actually invited the guy who was responsible for it (Gary Kildall?), which person didn't show up. Surfing or something. Wasn't interested in meeting the suits.

    That was actually the meeting between Gary Kildall (owner of Digital Research and writer of CP/M) and IBM. Bill Gates had nothing to do with that meeting. One version of the story says he went flying instead of showing up at the meeting arranged by IBM. Gary Kildall has said that that isn't true. He says he objected to the draconian nondisclosure agreement IBM wanted him to sign.
    The company that wrote QDOS didn't know IBM was looking for an OS for their new PC. I'm not even sure that anybody even knew they were building one yet when Microsoft bought QDOS from the company that first wrote it (although I'm pretty sure the rumors had started at the least).

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