Innovation

Anybody working in the software business knows beyond doubt that Microsoft is hurting innovation. Almost any interesting software business idea you can think of that involves the desktop will eventually put you in direct competition against Microsoft. And everybody knows that, with Microsoft’s seriousnes about taking competitors out of the market, coupled with their bottomless coffers and aggressive (illegal?) business tactics, this means either get acquired by Microsoft (aka “line up” in the quote below) or your air supply cut off like Netscape’s (aka “smashed”).





It’s incredible that there can be any doubt that Microsoft is hindering innovation. Anyone who’s been to a place where innovation happens knows that innovation does not (only) occur inside Microsoft or any other big companies. But this is an area where the misunderstandings are widespread.





The personal computer wasn’t invented by the computer industry. In fact, it took IBM, the owner of the computer market, six years after the first personal computer, the Altair, to develop their personal computer. The Altair was developed by a tiny and unsuccessful calculator company, not by a large computer company. The web wasn’t developed by a software company, but by a physicist. SOAP wasn’t invented by Microsoft or IBM, but was based on XML-RPC from Dave Winer’s tiny company Userland.





That innovation is done by individuals and not by big companies is one thing. The other aspect is that the real innovation is in how things are being used, something that requires innovation by the users, at the edges of the system. The telephone was never intended for letting people chit-chat across a distance, but that’s how it turned out to be most useful. The internet wasn’t designed for the web, and the web wasn’t designed for commerce like Amazon or communities like Yahoo! Groups, but that’s how it turned out to be useful.





These shifts in how the technology is being used from something useless dreamt up by some company envisioning a market, to something useful thought of by the users or someone close to the users, could only happen because the technology was left relatively open. WAP is an example of another useless new technology, but because it remains closed, people have no way of going out and finding new uses for the technology, hence it’ll remain useless.





Innovation really happens in the interplay between individuals wherever they are, just like it’s always happened in academia. This has been the cornerstone of scientific progress for centuries, but somehow this lesson seems to be forgotten in the media. It’s time we change that.

7 comments

I agree and I don't <p>Hmm... Yes and no... I agree and I don't. </p> <p>How about ICQ, which was originally created by Mirabilis (a small Israeli company, I think). They pretty much invented Instant Messaging -- I highly innovative move.</p> <p>But although Mirabilis was praised for an effective "viral marketing" strategy, their technology never spread beyond the small niche of nerdy users. The software had to be downloaded and was notoriously difficult to install -- not to mention make it work.</p> <p>It wasn't until Microsoft entered the stage with their -- in terms of functionality -- inferior MS Messenger product. However, Microsoft immediately secured wide proliferation of MS Messenger, thereby greatly adding to the total value of the product. Also, Microsoft understands that by integrating many smaller technologies they will yield a total value far greater than the sum of each.</p> <p>Today, Instant Messaging (at least in Denmark) is equal to MS Messenger. A huge portion of the population knows what it is and has access to it. I mean, the fact that SO many people already have a Hotmail account should really underscore this. If you have a Hotmail account, you are already signed up to Messenger. Brilliant! I know of several office settings where it is used for internal communication -- as a vital everyday tool.</p> <p>So, yes: The innovation was done by "the grassroots" and not by the huge cooperation. In fact, nothing Microsoft did in my example ammounts to "innovation". But on the other hand, I don't think Instant Messaging would have become a widespread phenomenon unless some big company or whatever stepped onto the scene. I basically don't think Microsoft is bad, in fact I think that their near-monopoly has been to the benefit of the average user. The fact that they control such a big portion of the user experience is what makes it available, valuable and accessible to the general public.</p> <p>Let me finish with another example and a question to you, Lars. What about SMS? This is a technology developed by big companies and networks. How does that fit into your frame of mind?</p> <p>Best regards, and keep up the brilliant blogging effort<br /> /jesper</p> <p>BTW: Yes, WAP is a ridiculous technology at the moment. But I still think it has a huge potential. All we need is reliable allways-on connection -- at the moment GPRS is too flawed. And then we need proliferation of handsets with push technology (wap 1.2). We'll see. ;)</p>
By Jesper Lauridsen on Mon, Jun 10, 02 at 20:54 · Reply
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Sorry, you're missing the facts Instant messaging was invented way before ICQ. I know for a fact that it existed in the form of the command <code>talk</code> on UNIX, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was part of <a href="http://www.bootstrap.org/engelbart/index.jsp">Doug Engelbart</a>'s <a href="http://www.cs.brown.edu/stc/resea/telecollaboration/engelbart.html">Mother of All Demos</a>, or some other Xerox PARC research project, though I'm only guessing here. <p> In fact, ICQ was bought by AOL, who also have their own IM client, AIM, which has long been the most popular IM client and protocol in the US. For some reason it never really hit Denmark. It still has a major leap over MS, who's only playing catchup in this field. <p> Regardsless, neither one of those players invented IM. Not Mirabilis, not AOL, not Microsoft. <p> SMS proves the point that the killer app in the mobile telephone business is human-to-human communcations. WAP is useless, because it only lets you get information that you don't care about. And the protocols are closed and controlled every step along the way, preventing people from inventing new uses that are useful to them. <p> SMS is brilliant because it allows people to communicate with each other with a minimum of hassles. And, incidentally, it's also fairly open, in that it can be used for things like voting for the European Song Contest even though it wasn't designed for things like that. But I wouldn't characterize SMS as an innovation, really. Again, it's just old stuff on a new technology. Would email on a different transport, like Token Ring, be an innovation?
By Lars Pind on Mon, Jun 10, 02 at 20:54 · Reply
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Argh... ! <p>I wrote a lengthy response, but I forgot a title, then used the back-button -- and gone!!! Lost in hyperspace...</p> <p>Anyway, the a shortened version goes like this:</p> <p>Okay, so I got the facts wrong. I probably did. But what remains (according to you) is that IM was invented by grass roots (not Mirabilis) in the form of FINGER and TALK commands in UNIX. But it was not until the big company AOL (not MS) adopted the concept that it became a widespread success.</p> <p>And so, please don't get me wrong. I do agree with you Lars, that (true and revolutionary) innovation tend not to take place in big compaines -- revolutionary ideas almost all originate from communities of users or individuals.</p> <p>But it is your statement that "Microsoft hurts innovation" that I do not subscribe to. I think it is fair to say that big companies have the potential to spot innovations (among millions), add product development to the mix and create useful products which are accessible and widely available. Otherwise, innovations would remain just that: Interesting ideas that nobody cares about.</p> <p>In fact, I would say the exact opposite: That a company like Microsoft may well be instrumental to grass-root based technology innovation because of its role in proliferating desktop computing. In that respect, I regard Microsoft as a provider of Infrastructure just like a government that provides roads, tele communication lines, health service etc.</p> <p>hmmm....<br /> /jesper</p> <p>of less importance: Please enlighten me... What is it about WAP that makes it capable only of delivering "information that you don't care about". What is it about WAP that makes it a closed technology -- more so than eg. HTML. And how is SMS "more open" than WAP???</p>
By Jesper Lauridsen on Mon, Jun 10, 02 at 20:54 · Reply
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Innovation Requires the Right Environment This is an interesting conversation about innovation. I definitely agree that innovation is something that individuals make happen. Innovation is primarily a creative activity and it comes directly from human minds working together. But, in what environment? <p> Innovation can happen in both big organizations and small organizations. Lars, it is ironic that you criticize large organizations and give a lot of credit to academics for putting forward innovation. Many of the most famous researchers usually work for two organizations: a University (usually thousands of people including funding from thousands more) and Governments (up the numbers a few orders of magnitude). There are many examples of innovation coming from within large corporations: the modern concepts of the GUI and desktop publishing were initially developed, among other places, at Xerox PARC, a research center at a huge organization. UNIX came out of Bell Labs and was itself born out of MULTICS, part of a huge government-funded project that failed. <p> Another example: consider Post-It notes, arguably the most useful invention for reminding people about things. Post-It notes are much more effective at their use still than any piece of reminding software. Post-It Notes were <a href=http://www6.mmm.com/groups/cmpa/Legacy.nsf/babff0a291c2c1cd862566bf0070f6f9/8fffca928003bbca862566bf007112e2?OpenDocument>invented</a> by Art Fry and Spence Silver. They invented them while employees at 3M, a huge US company, that has enshrined innovation as one of its core values. 3M directly encouraged Fry and Silver by funding them and providing him with the freedom to pursue their ideas. Fry, Silver, and the 3M team <b>together</b> were responsible for this innovation. There are many other examples like this from many other companies. <p> However, innovation doesn't just happen in any kind of place. There must be room for an individual to make changes, to experiment, and to persevere. If the innovator works very hard, they could produce a great idea. But then the challenge comes to take it to market. As Jesper points out, large companies are often well equipped to spread technologies to the masses because of their marketing machinery. However, innovators may choose to do it on their own by recruiting investors, doing their own financing, and starting their own company. Google is a great example of two great innovators working together to build the foundation for a large and successful company that plans to thrive by enshrining technical innovation as a core value. If Google perseveres, they might become another 3M, another outstanding company constantly working to further innovation and deliver great value to customers. <p> Let's look at Microsoft. SOAP is much more useful and in the hands of thousands of more developers because of Microsoft's help, and with the help of countless others. In the past, Microsoft produced very innovative object technology, such as COM and OLE, the technological plumbing of Windows and Office. Microsoft worked with some great innovators, including Alan Cooper, to produce Visual Basic, a leading RAD and GUI development tool. Today, Microsoft has produced .NET, an outstanding piece of software and set of open specifications. <p> The answer here is that <b>the innovator can't do it alone</b>. Innovators need help to make their ideas succesful. That help can come from disparate sources such as a decentralized community, a progress-focused government, a venture capital organization, the public markets, or even a large organization like Microsoft.
By Bryan Quinn on Mon, Jun 10, 02 at 20:54 · Reply
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What is innovation excactly? <p>Reading this discussion, it seems to me, that innovation is used as both getting ideas <i>and</i> making them a success. I belive that great ideas will become a success, because the idea itself is great, not because I've got some investors like 3M behind me.</p> <p>Is Linux a huge success because it's a great OS, or because they had a lot of money to spend on marketing?</p> <p>Did IM become a success because of Microsoft, or because the technolgy itself showed to be usefull? <br>If Microsoft hadn't created MS Messenger, people (in Denmark) would just have used AIM or Yahoo Messenger instead.</p> <p>I think it's a mistake to look at innovation as "making something popular". If the idea itself is great, it will spread on it's own. But hey - you have to get your money from somewhere, so investors are not bad :-)</p> <p>My 2 cents.</p>
By Andreas Ryge on Mon, Jun 10, 02 at 20:54 · Reply
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Back on track I'm not saying that big companies can't innovate. The facts are: <ol> <li>Microsoft's monopolistic behavior is clearly hurting innovation ("uh-oh, can't do that, that would make us too visible to MS and they'd crush us")</li> <li>Truly great innovations like the internet and the web cannot come from any one company or any one individual.</li> </ol> I'm not saying that Microsoft isn't adding any value or aren't doing cool things from time to time. They clearly are. Their "innovation" is mainly about taking other people's ideas and refining them, like with Windows (Doug Engelbart, Macintosh), IE (Netscape) and .NET (Java). And that's perfectly alright, nothing wrong with that. <p> The problem is that by insisting on crushing all their competition, and because they're strategically and financially in a position to do that, like they did with netscape ("cut off their air supply") or like the now infamous Lotus 1-2-3 quote ("DOS isn't done before Lotus doesn't run"), this is directly hurting innovation, because they focus on preventing the other guy from making a better product, rather than making a better product themselves.
By Lars Pind on Mon, Jun 10, 02 at 20:54 · Reply
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Monopoly, antitrust laws and more... <p>I think it is beyond doubt that the Microsoft monopoly is damaging to innovation and development.<br> The sole reason that we have something called the Antitrust Acts is because a trust/monopoly traditionally acts as a barrier against the free development of new technology - and Microsoft is just proving that point. A competitive environment can only exist because of new innovations -- whereas a monopoly can only exist in a controlled environment where new innovations most often will be filtered-out because they are seen as a threat rather than a possibility. <p>I think the comment made by Andreas Ryge, that "If the idea itself is great, it will spread on it's own" is a bit romantic to say the least. I can assure you that there are a lot of great ideas and innovations out there that have never reached the market because they were somehow excluded by companies and organizations. Or because the innovator was for some reason not clever enough to spread the idea.<br> Patents are a way to assure that great innovations will enter into the public realm instead of ending their life in a file cabinet. It doesn't always work that way, but the intentions are clear: great ideas alone are not enough, they have to become public before we can all truly benefit from them.
By Lars Munkedal on Mon, Jun 10, 02 at 20:54 · Reply
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