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2006-12-01 17:09:43

Who cares if Microsoft is innovative or not?

In today's Wall Street Journal, Robert Scoble and Dave Winer are debating the question of whether Microsoft is innovative or not.  Winer says "Microsoft isn't an innovator, and never was".  Scoble's argument doesn't appear to offer the same kid of juicy sound bite that begs to be ripped out of context, but he generally seems to be defending Microsoft as an innovator.

Don Dodge chimes in, saying that "they both missed the point".  His claim rests on his quibbles over the misuse of the words "innovation" and "invention".  He backs up his argument by offering definitions for both words, but as far as I can tell he made those definitions up.  They bear little or no resemblance to anything I can find in my copy of Webster's Tenth Edition.  Anyway, Dodge goes on to say that Microsoft should be getting credit for both invention and innovation.

Scoble is an ex-Microsoftie.  Dodge is currently with Microsoft.  AFAIK, Winer has never worked for Microsoft.

All three of these guys have some smart things to say on the topic, but if I have to choose, I'll side with Dave Winer.  I personally don't think of Microsoft as an innovative company.  I think of Microsoft as a company with outstanding execution, not outstanding innovation.

But to me the more important question is, "Who cares?"  When I say Microsoft is not innovative, I am not making a pejorative statement.  Rather, I am wondering why Microsoft would even want to be innovative.

Microsoft is a public company.  They exist for the purpose of generating profit for their shareholders.  The truth is that the link between innovation and profit is weak at best.  Innovation is not the usual path to making a lot of money.  Most people don't buy innovative products.  They buy proven solutions which have matured a bit further and are ready for the mainstream.

Taking technologies through this maturing process is difficult and fraught with risk.  Microsoft offers a huge number of cool products that people really want, and they do it better than anybody else.  If those products don't inspire people to think of Microsoft as innovative, who cares?

Microsoft apparently cares a lot.  They seem to want the world to see them as innovative.  Scoble and Dodge are not the first Microsofties to get all fussy on this issue.  But why?

I think Microsoft knows that innovation usually does not lead to profit, but it does lead to admiration.  People admire innovators, and Microsoft wants to be admired.

But now it's time for my point:  If Microsoft really wants to be admired, I think they should stop complaining that people don't admire them and start acting admirably.

Need an example?  Last week, Microsoft announced a licensing program for their "intellectual property" associated with the ribbon feature in Office 2007.  Now, I'll be the first to say that there are some cool things here.  The ribbon concept itself is cool.  The license is apparently free of cost, which is cool.

But the un-cool part is the complete absence of information about what intellectual property rights are being licensed.  They explicitly say that there is no code being licensed, so what IP am I getting when I sign this license?

It's not clear.  What is clear is that if you use a ribbon-like concept in your app but choose not to sign this license, you take the risk of being sued by Microsoft.  But since you don't know what the basis of that lawsuit will be, you have no objective information on which to base your decision.  All you know is that an enormous and powerful company is making subtle threats.  And that's scary.

Bottom line:  This smells like a company using fear to manipulate people.  And nobody admires someone who applies fear for the purpose of coercion.

The ribbon issue happens to be the situation that has me annoyed at the moment, but this is just one example of Microsoft acting in a way that leads people to not admire them.  There are plenty of other examples I could cite.  Sum it all up and you have one big dissonant noise:  Microsoft says they want to be admired, but sometimes their actions indicate that they want profit a lot more than they want admiration.

My regular readers know that I generally consider myself to be a fan of Microsoft's products and technologies.  That hasn't changed.

I am also not saying I disapprove of Microsoft as a basically profit-driven corporation.

I just wish they'd stop expecting people to admire them.

Microsoft reminds me of an IRS auditor who is whining that he doesn't have any friends.