Windows 7 may have pushed Microsoft's revenue to record levels last quarter, but a former executive still has a dim outlook on the company's future. The root of the problem? The company's alleged inability to innovate.
Writing in the New York Times' op-ed section, former Microsoft VP Dick Brass ponders why Microsoft "no longer brings us the future." As he points out, many new and innovative products from the past decade or so—the iPad, Amazon's Kindle, the BlackBerry, the iPhone, the iPod, Google, iTunes, Facebook, and Twitter—all originated at other companies. Microsoft, meanwhile, continues to get the lion's share of its profits from Windows and Office, products deeply rooted in the past. Brass believes the firm "can't count on these venerable products to sustain it forever."
The former executive goes on to call Microsoft a "clumsy, uncompetitive innovator," saying its grip on high-end laptops, smart phones, and web browsers is slipping, while the Xbox 360 is failing to outshine other consoles. Part of the problem, he asserts, is that Microsoft "never developed a true system for innovation." Quite the opposite:
Internal competition is common at great companies. It can be wisely encouraged to force ideas to compete. The problem comes when the competition becomes uncontrolled and destructive. At Microsoft, it has created a dysfunctional corporate culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence. It’s not an accident that almost all the executives in charge of Microsoft’s music, e-books, phone, online, search and tablet efforts over the past decade have left.
We can sense some amount of bitterness between the lines as Brass explains how he attempted to push tablet PCs and e-books at Microsoft ten years back, largely without success. His article includes telling anecdotes. When his team came up with ClearType font rendering technology, for instance, Brass claims Microsoft's VP of pocket devices refused to support the technology unless he got control over the program and its programmers. Windows engineers also lied about the subpixel hinting causing display problems. In the end, "a decade passed before a fully operational version of ClearType finally made it into Windows."
Brass isn't without praise for Microsoft; he applauds CEO Steve Ballmer for delivering "over $100 billion" in profits over the past 10 years, and he acclaims Bill Gates for his philanthropic efforts. However, he believes Microsoft may not survive unless it "regains its creative spark."