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Microsoft and (lack of) innovation: Big angst in Redmond

While it may not be facing a Toyota-like crisis of confidence, Microsoft’s got big problems.

Today, Dick Brass, a former exec who headed up Microsoft’s ill-fated tablet PC efforts, turned a spotlight on the company’s “Issues”, in a brutal New York Times Op Ed piece, decrying the silo’d thinking and fiefdoms that have prevented Microsoft from coming out with great (as in not derivative) products.  You know, products people actually want to buy, as opposed to the “we have to upgrade to stay legal” kind of products it rolls out. (To all those who would now start screaming that most of Microsoft’s innovation borrowed heavily on advances by Apple, Netscape, and Novell,  I have to quote the great  Waltmosspuppet and say: “Shut up.” ) 

Brass’s point is that Microsoft is so fractionalized by semi-automous groups, headed by executives with their own agendas, that very little that comes from outside those groups has a shot in hell.

“When we were building the tablet PC in 2001, the vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept. The tablet required a stylus, and he much preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts doomed. To guarantee they were, he refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet. So if you wanted to enter a number into a spreadsheet or correct a word in an e-mail message, you had to write it in a special pop-up box, which then transferred the information to Office. Annoying, clumsy and slow.”

Of course, just days after Apple’s iPad announcement, Brass is trying to justify the failure of the Microsoft tablet  but his description of the Microsoft culture rings true. Insiders confirm suspicions that this particular Office head is none other than Steven “My way or the highway” Sinofsky. Sinofsky is famous for delivering key products–most notably the various Offices and then Windows 7– on time, but also for quashing any creativity that might get in the way of that delivery. BTW, Sinofksy has a new book coming out. The title? Unsurprisingly it’s One Strategy.

There are too many camps at Microsoft pulling in too many directions. The company has too many “top priorities.” Apple’s beauty and its curse is that it has a fiefdom of one. That means a big bottlenecks at Steve Job’s desk (or yoga mat, or whatever he works on.) It also means a single vision.

In other signs of the times, the company seems to be losing a lot of veteran executive talent of late.  Mike Nash, who had headed up security and other high-profile efforts during his 19 years at the borg is leaving just a month after another veteran, Bill Veghte called it quits. 

Now, Microsoft is a huge company, and it’s natural that someone might want to move on after nearly 20 years, but there just seems to be a total loss of mojo there lately, even as its next-big thing, Microsoft Azure, kicks off.

Here’s the take of one insider –but it’s not unique–you hear this over and over again in places like MiniMicrosoft: Microsoft has great talent and great technology. But it’s all silo’d and each group has too much power to naysay what someone else is doing, or won’t sign on unless the technologists report into the group.

You’ve got to wonder how Ray Ozzie, the chief strategist brought in to forge Microsoft’s cloud thinking, can prosper in this environment where a half dozen company presidents report into the CEO, Steve Ballmer, but not to him.

And you’ve got to wonder if long-simmering rumors of discord between Ozzie and Sinofsky, mean trouble for Azure ahead. After all, if a mere tablet threatened Office, think what true cloud computing means to Microsoft’s ginormous on-premises operating systems and apps business.

 

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