I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m one of Microsoft’s biggest fans. While the ubertrendy dote on Steve Job’s next iGadget and lambast the presentation skills of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, my heart skips a beat when I hear about the next iteration of Windows Server, or see leaked screenshots of the latest versions of Windows Mobile. Mac guys can drool over their flashy touch interface on the iPhone, but I’ll keep my seamless Exchange synchronization on my Windows Mobile phone, thank you very much.
Raking Microsoft over the coals is about as sporting as shooting fish in a barrel with a Tank, but in this case provides some insight into a popular topic as of late: innovation. Arguably, no company in the past 30 years has been as innovative as Microsoft. A handful of techies created an entirely new business model and came to dominate corporate technical infrastructure from the desktop to the server room. They have made inroads in products as diverse as ATMs, video game consoles, and wristwatches. While its products are not as sexy as some competitors, anyone who has even a vague connection to technology likely interacts with Microsoft’s products in some manner on a daily basis.
With pundits (myself included) citing innovation as critical to successful IT organizations, how can Microsoft’s culture of innovation now be cited as a negative? At Microsoft, innovation seems to be missing its vital partner in crime: continuous improvement. Perhaps Microsoft has a case of corporate Attention Deficit Disorder, attacking a new technical challenge with incredible gusto, delivering a robust yet unpolished solution, then abandoning the product when a modicum of effort would take the product from a slightly dysfunctional stone to a shining gem. Imagine a world of products out of Redmond where one did not have to wait for the first service pack to arrive for it to function reliably, or where a bit more effort was spent on usability once all the technical challenges were worked out.
One of the most ubiquitous of all Microsoft applications, Internet Explorer, serves as a fine example of this tendency to focus too narrowly on innovation. IE repeatedly languishes until some other browser catches fire, at which point Microsoft shifts an army of product specialists and developers back to the browser until the competitor fades into the obscurity, defeated by a newly rejuvenated Internet Explorer. The hard work of exterminating the upstart done, IE departs the innovation train and stays stuck in its most recent incarnation.
The problem with this way of doing business is that innovation is expensive and distracting. Refining an innovation to take it from a flurry of excitement and newness to a shining example of “business as usual” is decidedly unsexy, but it’s one of the biggest complaints against the software giant. While the work of refining and institutionalizing an innovative product or service will not win you cover stories in tech magazines, it does create a loyal cadre of customers, and incredibly reliable products. Microsoft is constantly lambasted for poorly executed ideas and products, from half-baked Tablet PCs to the much loathed and now abandoned “personal assistant” concept best remembered by the annoying talking paperclip in MS Word. The vast majority of these are conceptually sound, and Microsoft routinely overcomes the technical challenges associated with delivering the product only to leave it stillborn, when a modicum of additional labor would deliver a polished and reliable product.
Perhaps the closest contrast to Microsoft is Apple, particularly on the issue of innovation. While Apple is largely perceived as a trendsetter and technical innovator, most of its products are based on commodity technology. Apple’s personal computer products use the same Intel silicon and architecture as every other PC maker, and the iPhone and iPod are churned out of the same factories in China and use the same commodity components as everyone else. Even the Mac operating system is a variant of Unix, a technology developed in the Jurassic period of computing technology. Apple really is not a fount of innovation; rather they take existing products and concepts and refine them, excelling in adding that last 10% to a product companies like Microsoft have abandoned.
While the big idea people make the most noise and leave a trail of sound and fury in their wake, a company’s attentions must not focus solely on the innovations they create. Equally important to the innovation process are those who can continually refine a new concept and extract the last 10% of functionality and refinement from it. There are entire markets, whether it’s Apple or a fine European auto maker, who look at the world not through a lens of innovation, but rather from a perspective of how rough innovative ideas can be refined. While stealing ideas for your own is unethical at best, companies like Apple have made an entire business out of refining the innovations of others, refining coarse concepts or applying them to new areas to define a market.
Whether you’re a junior programmer or CEO, there are myriad opportunities for refinement of new and innovative ideas. There may be systems or processes that have recently been unleashed on your company and abandoned by the project teams that built them, after the excitement of implementation is over. A technical breakthrough may be applicable to other systems and processes in the company, and while the most innovative minds are chasing the Next Big Thing – the innovation can be vetted, refined, and institutionalized. Following the Microsoft example and fostering innovation to the point that you are running from one burning hot concept to the next and leaving a trail of half-baked products in your wake is a great way to burn cash and leave customers partially satisfied.