How Microsoft can become a center for innovation

With its new CEO Satya Nadella, there has been a lot of focus on the I word in Redmond. Many of you might scoff at the notion that the software giant can innovate. The company does have a rich history of being late to many tech parties over the years. But I want to remind you that there have been some glimmers of innovative thinking in several products down through the ages.
For example, back in 1989 Microsoft introduced Office on the Mac OS, a year before it came out for Windows PCs. Indeed, Word was available on the first 1984-vintage Macs and one of the main reasons people bought Macs back then, when Multimate and Word Perfect were the major DOS word processors. It wasn’t the first to have a way to create documents on a graphical OS but it did become the standard, largely through the integration of Powerpoint and Excel. You would be hard pressed to find anyone that hasn’t used these products today.
Several years later, they released a new version 6 of DOS that included the ability to compress data in software before it was written to a hard drive. Now that desktop and laptop PCs have terabyte drives, it is hard to imagine that anyone cares about disk compression. But back then saving a few megabytes of disk space was a big deal. The problem was that this disk compression was already being done by Stac Electronics in a product called DoubleSpace. Lawsuits and counter-suits followed, and Stac was able to win and receive a large investment and royalty from Microsoft as a result. Was this innovative or more combative? Still, a memorable Microsoft moment.
And in 1995, Microsoft wasn’t the first to integrate the desktop with the Internet browser, but they helped to blur the lines on how you stored your files. Remember Netscape? They failed miserably at the task with the same browser code base. Today most of us switch between the desktop and online pretty much effortlessly, and we even have Chromebooks that have almost no local storage for our files.
Then there is Kinect, Microsoft’s innovative motion sensor peripheral to its Xbox game console. While it still hasn’t taken off for business computing, there are lots of people trying to incorporate it into their products. I just saw a demo from a new company a few weeks ago that is trying to use Kinect for physical therapy exercises.
So what is my wish list for future innovation for Satya? I feel like we should be on a first name basis, with all the press videos that have been posted this week. Here goes:
1. How about making Windows the most secure desktop OS in history, rather than the most exploited? Enough with making it more Metro-sexual.There is a reason why a lot of folks have stuck with XP all these years: it works just well enough. ┬áLet’s lock it down and get rid of the world’s botnets once and for all. While they are at it, do the same for its IIS web server security too.
2. How about finishing off the half-hearted integration of Hyper-V and Azure so that Windows can be the VM Switzerland and be used to run virtual machines from either VMware or Amazon’s Web Services? Let’s take another look at the lessons learned from Netscape.
3. Let’s give up the ghost on Windows Phone: it is time to realize that the world has moved on. Maybe that few billion for Nokia is largely an academic exercise. Is there still a mobile play that Microsoft could benefit with combining forces with Apple’s iOS? Like making Office work really well on that platform? Think about what Word did for the new Macintoshes back in 1984.

5 thoughts on “How Microsoft can become a center for innovation

  1. Hi David,

    As usual a great article and vision !

    As for myself I think Microsoft is likely to become the classic and quintessential example of long term high-tech corporate disintegration.


  2. David, You have mentioned some of the few innovations from Microsoft over the years. And I would question whether the Stac-like data compression was an innovation or just another acquistion, albeit done very quietly. But, mostly they have grown through technology acquisition, an example being the acquisition of Bauer’s PostScript clone which became TrueType to avoid any royalties paid to Adobe. And all the acquisitions explain the bloat, poor integration and poor security of Windows.

    Recently, a friend gave me an old DEC Hinote CX475 laptop. Nothing to look at by today’s standards, but with its 20MB of memory, 500MB hard drive and 75MHz 486 CPU, it has no trouble running Windows 95 and Office 7.0. So where have we come after all these years? Bloat, eye candy and more bloat, as the usual system I sell these days runs 64-bit Windows 7 in 8GB of memory. Any Windows 7 system kind of sucks with less memory. Some of the bloat comes because of the transition from 16-bit through 32-bit to 64-bit code, but that only explains part of the bloat.

    Yes, Satya faces a challenge of the highest order, having to overcome the double whammy of the smashing Windows 8 failure and the rise of the tablets. And they are pulling the plug on XP way too early for many enterprises and a lot of consumers, too.

  3. Microsoft is a superb marketing machine. Many of its best programs and innovations are there, not in its products.

    Software manufacturers will have great trouble building in security when much of what is available is based on C derivatives which have no compile or run time error checking. Programmers often have a natural aversion to security. Security is meant to break things. It keeps you from doing things you might otherwise wish to do. Modern programming often depends on modular techniques and abstractions that leverage large bases of code, like DLL libraries. When you need to load multiple megabytes of code into memory to get access to some functionality you need, you have greatly increased your attack surface. Modern business practice would also have you release code as fast as you can and fix it later via patching through the Internet. These days, the user IS the beta tester. Programs also tend to be somewhat monolithic. Programmers need to focus on their little part of the world. But, it is the integrations or dependencies that can often be the source of instabilities and exploits. Microsoft has tried to get everyone to use various common libraries of code (.NET), shared parameters (Active Directory/the registry), and names (DDNS). But, the trouble with standards is that there are so many to choose from. The structures are unweildy. The programs are large. The management is iffy. Portability is poor. Install and uninstall are often not clean. Patching is problematic.

    In short, Windows won’t become the Mac OS. But the Mac OS didn’t become the Mac OS either until Apple made the very uncomfortable decision to ditch the underlying code while keeping the user interface.

  4. Satya could do well to remove or alleviate the many irritants that we who feed from the Windows ecosystem encounter every day. Why no SP4 for Windows XP? Now Microsoft is creating the same irritations with Windows 7. After I installed Win 7 on a refurb computer this morning, I installed IE11 straightaway. It took 10 minutes. Next, Windows update identified 131 updates to be installed, over 600MB of downloads. The download task took so long at decent broadband speeds that I had the opportunity to install ALL the other stuff needed to have a useful computer including Java, Acrobat Reader, truly functional CD/DVD burning software, VLC, PDF Creator and LibreOffice. Once the download finished, Windows Update told me that the updates did not need to be installed! My response was predictable: !#*^*(&*(&$#. Then I shut the computer down, and it proceeded to go ahead with the installation of 131 updates anyway. Talk about misleading messages. So where is the Win 7 SP2 incorporating IE11(!!!) that would simplify our lives? As you can see, I have absolutely no incentive to sell or use Microsoft products other than Windows 7 in my SOHO market here. What I pay my distributor for Office is pennies less than the price in Best Buy, Staples or any other big box store.

  5. I completely agree with David that job 1 should be making Windows more secure. However I do not expect it to happen.

    If Windows made you a multi-billionaire (Gates, Ballmer) or a multi-millionaire (new CEO) then would you wake up in the morning thinking that it stinks? Of course not, you would worship the OS and think its great. Only an outsider as CEO could have started with a “Windows stinks” mindshare and set out to improve it. Windows will continue to be plagued by malware which will kill it moving forward just as much as any tablet or Chromebook.

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