Microsoft On Claims of Lameness: It's the Scale, Stupid

Illustration for article titled Microsoft On Claims of Lameness: It's the Scale, Stupid

After former VP Dick Brass publicly excoriated Microsoft's management and philosophy in an NYT Op-Ed this morning, the company had three good options: fully discredit his claims, let it pass, or admit shortcomings. Or, I guess, none of the above.


Microsoft's response came in the form of a blog post from the company's VP of Communications. It moves through Dick's piece point by point, sort of, so we'll move through his post point by point, sort of.

Dick Brass accused Microsoft of stifling innovation, and stretching even small projects—like the implementation of ClearType, a font antialiasing feature for Windows—into years-long fiascos. Their response?

For the record, ClearType now ships with every copy of Windows we make, and is installed on around a billion PCs around the world. This is a great example of innovation with impact: innovation at scale.

Now, you could argue that this should have happened faster. And sometimes it does. But for a company whose products touch vast numbers of people, what matters is innovation at scale, not just innovation at speed.

The thing is, all Brass was doing was arguing that this should have happened faster. To say that scale is all that matters is to imply that lots of people potentially using ClearType was what slowed its implementation, which doesn't really make sense. Scale is obviously—and rightly—important to Microsoft, but I think Brass's point is that scale and speed don't have to be perfectly inverse.

Brass also claimed that elements in the Office team were so resistant to the idea of tablets that they refused to make a touch-specific interface for the suite. Microsoft's response?

I'll simply point to this product called OneNote that was essentially created for the Tablet and is a key part of Office today.


OneNote is a notetaking application. You can draw in it, and it excels at recording stylus input in various ways. It's a good app! What it doesn't do, though, is make using any of the other Office apps any easier to use with a tablet. The first generation of Windows tablet PCs needed a touch Office suite, not a single new app.

One point where Shaw nails it, though, is on gaming. For Brass to say that the Xbox 360 is "at best an equal contender in the game console business" doesn't ring true:

Fact is, Xbox 360 was the first high-definition console. It was the first to digitally deliver games, music, TV shows and movies in 1080p high definition. The first to bring Facebook and Twitter to the living room. And with Project Natal for Xbox 360 launching this year, it will be the first to deliver controller-free experiences that anyone can enjoy-a magical experience for everyone that Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Time magazine each named one of the top inventions of 2009.


The 360 is as close to a vindication of Microsoft's broader philosophy as there is: it was borne of the original Xbox project, which was a response to Microsoft finally identifying gaming consoles as a thing they wanted to do, with a scale that was worth it to them. In the long term, it paid off. That said, the success of the Xbox 360 depended hugely on Microsoft's incredible patience, which doesn't do much to shake the perception that the company moves too slowly, which is Brass' main concern anyway.

And that's the core problem here: While you can quibble about anecdotes and details, stories like this morning's are just illustrations of a problem that's painfully obvious to anyone who's been watching. For a company with so much money and talent to be so late on so many things—a worthy followup to Windows XP, a competitive mobile OS, a portable media player that isn't a punchline—makes it plenty clear what Microsoft's problem is. Brass just gave it some texture. [Microsoft]




I've always figured that the broader the user-base for a product, the more they have to play it safe. Windows currently caters to 95% of all computers, it is being used in all stretches of life. If I were them, I wouldn't be worried about innovation, either. Innovation usually means failing a bunch of times (publicly or behind the scenes) before you have a success story. If you have 95% of the users out there, and a fail slips through that ultimately leads to a financial hit (significant or not, it's still a hit), and they'll never hear the end of it. This means that each feature needs to work for everyone from the outset.

Companies like Apple can afford to be innovative because they have less to lose. If a feature is faulty, no problem; send out a patch and you'll probably hit a very large percentage of your users. As we all know, Apple users are a very dedicated, and *conveniently* passive bunch.

In the exact same vein, Microsoft can afford to be innovative with the 360 because they are not the dominant force in the market. Nintendo is. And guess what? Aren't they being accused of the same type of thing (maybe not so much innovation, but in technological aspect) in the videogame market?

The broader the user-base, the more important proven technology becomes.