Microsoft high points.... dwindling?

by Simon St. Laurent

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Slashdot picked up a piece wondering if the "first hints of rot" were in the air at Microsoft, which made me think about Microsoft when I first liked their products years ago and what I've found lately.

I guess it's fair to say that I'm returning to Microsoft subjects after
working in fields where they mattered but weren't the universe, and things
feel very different. When I last followed them closely:

  • Internet Explorer 4 was pretty much a revolution when it arrived, bringing
    huge new scripting functionality. IE 5 for the Mac made similar
    improvements on the CSS side. Now that same browser core is a giant dead
    weight holding down the Web's capabilities.

  • Windows NT Server was stunning not so much because of its capabilities, but because it combined stability with an interface ordinary non-CLI-worshipping humans could understand. I really angered a Novell partisan friend of mine by saying NT would take over what Novell was doing then. (My friend now works at Novell, where he is very happy lately thanks to the Linux work and Mono giving them a new burst of excitement.) Windows 2003 Server rarely feels as interesting, though, and I long since stopped keeping Windows servers at home. The interfaces are kludgey, and at my level of use dedicated appliances (often Linux-based) make more sense.

  • Even Office, which I'd been using for years, having pretty much lived in Word during college, still had a lot of new tricks up its sleeve. While I still count Word 5.1 for the Macintosh (~1992) as the most overall usable version of the product, they made some major steps in Office as it became a Windows standard. Access 2.0 was an amazing leap forward, IMHO, and the 97 suite made some big changes in standardizing VBA across the line, but since then change has been largely incremental. (And yes, the XML support is a
    thin candy shell along the outside edges. When it goes deeper, as in Word, it generally breaks.)

Today, I see a lot less interesting going on, though there's still some interesting work going on there, some I'd even bless with their hallowed word 'innovation':

  • InfoPath took an XSLT parlor trick (making it two-way) and turned it into a forms application. A forms application with a confusing marketing picture, yes, but...

  • SharePoint may be the first sizable improvement in how people use Office since email became ordinary. It's not rocket science, but it manages some complex tasks cheerfully.

  • The .NET Compact Framework and Pocket PC generally intrigue me, though it's hard for me to say that it's very different from J2ME with a slightly more native-environment-friendly twist.

I'm looking forward to seeing what they have for show and tell in the future, but I can't say at this point it feels to me like
they're thriving. Their sheer momentum should keep their space open for a while, however!

What's the most exciting thing Microsoft is doing today? (Seriously!)


2005-02-12 17:51:11
OneNote is the single "new" application by Microsoft I am impressed with recently; I use it continually.
2005-02-12 20:12:55
I hate to do the "wait 'til you see the cool things I can't talk about" bit, but FWIW I was pretty blown away my first week at MS (about 2 months ago) when I heard about all the innovative stuff going on in areas that directly or indirectly touch on XML. I have no idea how much will ever see the light, but I think the world will be impressed with the results -- whichever ideas survive, and nobody can predict that right now, no matter how well informed they are about the current realities at either the top or down in the trenches.

One thing I don't think people appreciate is that MS tends to be its most technically innovative and shows its best quality/security gains in areas where it has the fiercest competition. All those folks predicting the demise of MS because of competition from Linux, OpenOffice, Firefox, etc. making hamburger out of the cash cows have it backwards IMHO: Whatever the failings of the current generation of MS products in some areas, the competition has motivated the company with brains as well as brawn. Things are going to get even more interesting ...

2005-02-13 00:18:15
good source for Microsoft news you pick
Slashdot is well known for their extreme anti-Microsoft bias, don't trust anything you read there about the company or their products.
2005-02-13 09:29:10
Looking at things with and understanding of what each side of the fence now looks like
Being one who spent several years on Redmond campus working first with the team responsible for building and promoting CDF, the first XML implementation, and then the excitement that was the Windows CE group during its early day hype I had a really good chance to see from the inside what is rarely seen by anybody else not directly involved with the research arm of Microsoft. Like Mike Champion mentioned it was truly amazing to see the innovation that was and I assume still is taking place behind closed doors. I know for a fact that many of the projects I had the chance to see first hand are still very much alive and slated for release "when the market and hardware is ready". And this, I believe, is right at the very heart of the problem. On one side of campus you see massive innovation and on the other side massive frustration. Is this a sign of a controlled experiment taking place by the assumed evil MS underworld, giving half of campus a combination of SuperProzac, vitamin B shots, and laughing gas and the other half incremental doses of ricin and Vics medicated lozenges to distract them just long enough to take a whiffle ball bat to their head just for the hell of it. While I don't have any evidence to back up my claim my guess is that this analysis might be a stroke or two off from reality. But maybe thats just me. ;)

Coming at things from the other side now and living, at least partially-to-more-often-than-not, in the exciting world that is the Open Source community I see this amazing dynamic where through the hard work, commitment, dedication, and sacrifice of literally 1000's if not 100's of 1000's of individuals there is now the possibility that a significant portion of our technological future will be courtesy of Open Source software initiatives. And wouldn't it just be dumb luck (or maybe it was planned "luck", you never know with these things ;) that the most exciting project of them all at the moment is an implementation of the exact same software that they are building over on Microsoft campus. The irony, if not obvious, is that in one camp exists innovation and in the other segregation and yet they are both building their foundation on top of the same spec. So where's the problem?

I believe the problem exists in several key places. First, MS has been King of the Hill for quite some time now and from the very early days of the industry its not exactly like the best of feelings have been thrown in the direction of Redmond, WA (right next to where I grew up in Kirkland, WA -- so by default I've been watching this for quite some time now.) And MS has always focused on being different. When the rest of the industry shored up between San Francisco and San Jose MS instead chose a then small community in Washington State on the shores of a recreational lake no one could pronounce to call home. With all this "defection" that was seen as taking place and all of the money that began to flow towards the banks of Lake Sammamish, Redmond was an easy target to focus frustration when things didn't quite go as some of the '90's Gold Rush hopefuls had thought it would. I'm not suggesting that some or even all of this was not at least partially deserved, but instead that they were an easy target to point at simply because they were somewhere else on the map and that somewhere was no where near Silicon Valley. You don't have to be an industry insider to know that to talk ill will of those in whom you share fence-lines and PTA board memberships with is not always the smartest business decision. Deserved or not more often was the case that Redmond became the Voodoo doll pin cushion of the aggravated Silicon Valley Capitalist who simply didn't get what was seen as so rightfully deserved.

With the foundation firmly set in place by the start of the 90's MS has never been able to shake away from this stereotype. When at times they deserved the tongue lashing this was seen as proof that all the other times were deserved as well. But because of Moore's Law and amazing situation was taking place at just the right time in modern day history. In a period of less than 6 years we went from a foundation of 486 and Pentium I processors, each considered "Top of the Line" when they horded 32megs of RAM on their motherboards to a world in which Gigahertz processors cost less than $100 US dollars and RAM was becoming "EXPENSIVE" again when it rose from a quarter for a meg to .35 cents forcing us to pay the ridiculous asking price of $90 for a 256MBytes of RAM. What was amazing about this time was not the obvious delusion seen in the price of a RAM module but that we suddenly became enabled to process code at a rate in which innovation simply couldn't keep up.

But if all of these exciting things were taking place on Redmond campus then why were they not simply finding there way onto our PC dinner plates on a daily basis? Because these innovations were to far beyond what we were able, as a technology based economy, to consume. Consider the fact that the Tiger project, Microsoft's Video-On-Demand project from the early 90's, was developed and ready for release by the time Windows 95 was launched. The problem was (and still is 10 years later!) that the hardware infrastructure necessary to support such an operation simply did not exist and wasn't going to exist at any point in the foreseeable future in which economic investment to hold things until they were ready simply couldn't be justified.

What ultimately then became the innovation of the late 20th and into the 21st century, and the direct benefactor of all this processing power were hand held devices and video game consoles. And thats where we exist today. While the code already exists to take our computing experience to levels in which our machines literally become our friends and therapist, we are simply not ready. While the research has been going on for years that enables our computers to adapt our environment by changing colors and background music when it is noticed our mood is cycling up or down or increasing/decreasing the rate in which a Window is animated to help slow us down or speed us up such that we can properly pace our work day to be most effective, we as a society are just not ready to take that leap yet. So instead we are faced with staring at the same basic Office GUI we have been staring at for the last 10 years and we are left wondering where's the innovation. If you don't own one already go an take a look at an XBox or a Playstation gaming center. Take a look at the hand held devices in which marvels like my Archos Personal Video Recorder contain 20, 30, even 80 GIG hard drives and a LCD that produces an unbelievably clear picture and contains as much if not more TV programming as the Tivo I purchased for my mother this Christmas. And all in a more compact form factor than the Hand held PC's I used to evangelize in the mid-to-late 90's who's battery capacity insured that Duracell's and Energizers stock was quite possibly the smartest investment in 75 years! Compare that to my PVR in which I plug it into its charger maybe once every three days after having my headphones attached and WMA files blaring for hours on end while I hack at yet some more exciting code that may very well play a part, be it even a small part, in helping to change the lives of people living in a fledgling economy on the cusp of being able to understand and accept the next level of technological innovation and yet just barely are scraping by trying to keep a stocked table and steady supply of shoes that don't contain gaping holes for a majority of there lifetime of use.

I'm not talking of third world countries here. In fact in regards to third world countries there is not a person on this planet who could argue and not look like a complete idiot for doing so that there is any one person and subsequently company doing more for the development of third world countries than Bill and Melinda Gates and the Microsoft Corporation. So on one end you have 20+ Billion dollars being properly directed towards the countries in which computers mean nothing and simply a life past the age of 5 means everything. On the other end you have the Open Source community who collectively are helping to bring technology and innovation at the promise of no cost and no expectations to countries who have no problem living into adulthood but are constrained to reach that next level of sociological and economic advancement simply because the economy will not support it quite yet. Each side is significant. Each side necessary. And ironically enough were all building our foundation and basing our excitement on implementations of the the exact same technology specification -- the C# language and the Common Language Infrastructure.

How in the hell did that happen? ;)

You know, maybe we just need a few more years before we realize that things are not as bad as we think they are. Then again, maybe not. But if you have seen what I have seen and know whats just around the corner for our technological economy you'll then understand what I mean when I suggest that if we hang on for just a little bit longer while the infrastructure is finished being built and we further prepare ourselves for the changes that lay just a few years ahead then we may just be Ok. That is if we don't first go crazy from our intolerance of staring at the same old screen that contains the same old user interface with the same old applications we've been staring at for years. If not, then maybe that SuperProzac, Vitamin B, and happy gas experiment will find its way down the line and we wont give a damn about the state of things anyway. ;)

Cheers to you all! :D

2005-02-13 12:48:28
good source for Microsoft news you pick
Michael S. Malone is not a Microsoft basher.

Go see for yourself at ABC News > Business:
2005-02-13 16:14:01
good source for Microsoft news you pick
I will agree with this statement. Both Simon's and Michael's posts are very fair and based on an evaluation of things they have both seen and felt. You can't tag anyone as a basher when they are consistently sticking to legitimate fact, concerns, or expressing the way they interpret various situations.

I do believe Microsoft needs to be careful that they don't simply let what made them such a great company in the first place fall by the wayside. I truly hope that what I believe is going to happen actually does but obviously what I feel and what actually happens could turn out to be very different things 5-10 years from now.

Guess we'll see :)

2005-02-13 18:06:54
Looking at things with and understanding of what each side of the fence now looks like
The insight into MS was interesting.
I guess research is more appealing than bug-fixing both inside MS and in OSS.

I for one feel that my hardware and my emotional state are now ready for MS to release the fixes for their remaining bugs, bloat and interoperability issues.

2005-02-14 06:19:44
inside, outside, IBM
I thank Mike and David for their perspectives on the innovation that goes on inside of Microsoft - I don't doubt their stories at all. While I haven't always shared their priorities, Microsoft employees have always struck me as very impressive and highly driven, with high levels of intellectual curiosity.

The problem I see isn't that this kind of excitement has left the Redmond campus, but rather that it doesn't show to the world very often lately. It's not so much a question of "do they have the ideas" as "can they deliver new things based on those ideas?" To me, the pipeline doesn't feel nearly as strong as it once did.

Microsoft periodically reminds me of IBM, which once held a similar position with similar problems. Even during the worst of IBM's fall, there was all kinds of activity going on in its labs. The employees still had plenty of interesting work going on, but it wasn't reaching the public. That disconnect is obviously a dangerous thing, but it's very difficult for a large and established company to put out new and potentially disruptive technologies.

I've also heard Microsoft described as the world's largest open source project, only one (of course) where most of the openness stays exclusively within the company. It's a good model for a proprietary company in many ways, but that barrier between the inside of the company and those of us on the outside makes for very different dynamics than we see in the more chaotic open source and free software universe. Open source doesn't always come to fruition either, but the parts and pathways are on display for the rest of the world to see.

The bubbling there is always visible. The bubbling at Microsoft is generally only visible through the tools the company releases. And right now, that doesn't feel nearly as strong (to me) as it used to feel.

2005-02-14 07:57:02
good source for Microsoft news you pick
jwenting is well known for his extreme pro-Microsoft bias, don't trust anything you […].
2005-02-17 03:11:38
Very nice follow-up...
I completely agree with you on this Simon. So many times the reason we do not see the innovation is that for one reason or another it doesn't make it past the marketing department analysis as a potential profit-making business or, as you mention, would be considered a disruptive technology, possibly competing directly with profitable business models already in place in other segments of the company.

There is obviously a lot to consider here and probably even more that hasn't even been thought of or considered. I do hope that, like IBM has been able to accomplish, Microsoft is able to pull themselves out of the doldrums of its current innovation-slump and carry out on some of the neat and exciting stuff they currently have sitting under the "Big Top" that is their Redmond-based campus.

Guess its simply just a matter of time before we know one way or the other.

Cheers :)


2005-02-17 03:14:25
Thanks for the laugh :)
Its always fun to get a good chuckle in at the start of each morning.

Thanks for the reason!