It's been 11 years since I turned in my badge as an employee of Microsoft. But I'm getting really tired of the journalistic angle "Microsoft Doesn't Innovate" in the media and larger blogosphere. For instance, Wired's article "Let's see Microsoft Innovate its Way Out of This One", and "Microsoft's XBox 360, Sony Playstation are No Nintendo Wii".
Give it a rest. Take a deep breath, and let's look at whether this is really true.
Let me first state — I think Apple is a tremendously innovative company. If I were forced to choose which company is currently more innovative, I would choose Apple.
Most journalists, and even more bloggers and Digg-ers, seem to accept Apple as the canonical innovator, with Microsoft being the old-time firm that can never think of a new idea and simply copies what's in the marketplace.
But we all stand on the shoulders of giants.
The iPod was far from the first digital music player, it merely was a much, much better designed and marketed one, well-integrated with a music purchase store. Very nice innovation and improvement on what was there in the marketplace. The iPhone too, is a tremendous cellphone, but its signature "innovation" — the multitouch interface — wasn't invented at Apple; it was demonstrated by Jeff Han at TED a couple years before the iPhone was released. Again, like the graphical user interface, the portable digital music player, and many other things Apple's erroneously credited for "inventing", Apple synthesized and refined what was already there, and made it far smoother, far more elegant, and far simpler. Apple rightly deserves credit for their attention to detail, their push to improve and simplify, and their design elegance.
But this all-too pervasive idea that Microsoft doesn't innovate is a total canard, and it's lazy journalism.
- Who released the very first satellite-based map of the world on the World Wide Web? It wasn't Google. Microsoft had its "Terraserver" live on the Web for more than three years before Google even existed as a company.
- Speaking of Google Maps, do you like the smoothness of "Web 2.0" sites that show page updates without full page refreshes? You see it all over the web — Facebook, Digg, Flickr, and far more. It's due to a technology called AJAX. And the most important element that makes this all work is a magical feature called XmlHttpRequest(), a way for browsers to communicate with servers asynchronously (that's the first A in AJAX). Invented by Microsoft, XmlHttpRequest first made its appearance in Internet Explorer 5.0. But you don't see many reporters recognizing that IE was the browser that actually ushered in the Web 2.0 AJAX revolution… All other browsers quickly followed, and this feature, coupled with some scripting, makes webpages feel smooth — enabling things like Google Maps, Stock Quotes that update in real-time, and virtually all the "Web 2.0" sites you can name.
- 9,167 patents with assignee "Microsoft". Doesn't necessarily prove innovation, but don't you think at least a few of those listed are innovations?
- Who created the first GUI-based relational database? It was Microsoft, and the product was Microsoft Access, released in 1994. Not dBase, not Borland, not Lotus.
- Who released the first web-based multiplayer matchmaking system for games? Microsoft, in 1995.
- Who released the first high-speed gaming network for video consoles? Microsoft, with XBox Live, which remains the most innovative online gaming experience out there. Microsoft was also first with online game add-ons right from your console.
- Do you take for granted the red squiggly lines showing you spelling errors as you type? Microsoft was the first to release this feature in Word, and now this innovation has become part of the ecosystem.
- The World Wide Telescope project is a tremendously innovative way of hurtling through space, virtually, and exploring our universe.
- Language Integrated Querying, or LINQ, is an incredibly innovative feature Microsoft just released in its developer tool suite. No other development environment offers this level of language-to-database query and schema-mapping integration.
Does Microsoft take ideas in the marketplace and try to build on them? You bet. So does Apple (iPod, iPhone, etc.) and every other tech company out there. Does Microsoft try some innovations every now and then that are total flops? You bet. So does Apple (Newton, meet Bob) and any other company. Should Microsoft be releasing more new innovations due to their size? I think so — I do think they could and should generate far more than they are today. But this idea that Microsoft never innovates is a total canard. It's lazy journalism.