Entelligence: Another view of Microsoft's creative destruction

Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

Last week, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by former Microsoft executive Dick Brass, in which he took the company to task on many issues. Brass was a VP at Microsoft who left in 2004, and prior to his departure he worked on various projects from e-books and ClearType to the Tablet PC. I've met Dick through the years and he's a super smart guy, but I'm not sure I agree with everything he wrote in his op-ed. Dick argues that internal politics and unwillingness to do "risky" hardware have led Microsoft away from innovation. Clearly, Dick has a much better view regarding Microsoft's internal politics than I do, but some of the examples that he uses to bolster his argument are a little off base, at least in my opinion.

Dick cites Clear Type, Tablet and Mobile as examples of innovative products that Microsoft managed to somehow bungle due to internal politics, and says that Xbox is at "at best an equal contender in the game console business." Let's examine those claims.

I recall when Microsoft's Bill Hill first briefed me on Clear Type. Clear Type works by using sub-pixel technology to render text more legibily, effectively anti-aliasing it to make it look smoother. It was introduced as part of Microsoft's early efforts at e-books -- Microsoft had e-book integration in Pocket PC and Windows via Microsoft Reader back when the only thing Amazon sold were paper books. The problem with ClearType is that it worked well only on LCD displays, which made it smart to integrate into Windows CE and Pocket PC when it was first developed, but it looked horrible on most CRTs -- which is likely why it was turned off by default in Windows XP, where it made its desktop debut. It's hard to imagine why any group or person would have been threatened by ClearType, as Brass asserts. The real issue was a pattern that seems to be repeating over and over: Microsoft releasing technology or products that are simply ahead of their time. The vision was there, but the technology to make it work in the marketplace was simply not mature. Microsoft's vision for e-books and making devices useful as immersive reading screens wasn't flawed, but the technology of the day simply could not match the vision.

That leads me to Tablet PC. Brass says that Tablet PCs were doomed because Office apps didn't work directly with pen input. There's no doubt a pen-enabled Office might have helped Tablet PC take hold in the market, but I don't think that was the main issue -- I think that once again, the technology was simply not up to the vision. Early Tablet PCs were expensive since the tablet features were a costly add-on, and they often had inferior specifications to cheaper non-tablet laptops. Worse, Tablet was a feature grafted on to Windows, which wasn't designed to be used for a pen. Arguably, Office apps modified to work with a pen would likely have not been properly optimized for the core Windows experience of mouse and keyboard. Brass also conveniently ignores OneNote, the Office app that was indeed optimized for Tablet and is often the key app that justifies a tablet PC purchase. That app, of course, came from the Office group.

Finally, Brass's Xbox argument exemplifies exactly why Microsoft has stayed out of the "high risk" hardware business -- it has nothing to do with being an "equal contender," and everything to do with finances. Just look at the financial history of the Xbox division, which has hardly made a positive dent in Microsoft's overall profitability despite rather good consumer adoption. For the most part, Microsoft's business remains and will remain software -- and that's probably not a bad thing.

In my view, Microsoft's biggest issue has been poor alignment of vision and execution. The vision Microsoft articulated in 2004 of the digital home was both complete and compelling, but the technology of the day simply couldn't bring it to fruition. Products like Portable Media Center, Origami / UMPC, Media Center and Tablet PC and SPOT devices are all examples of products that were far too ahead of their time. No doubt, we'll hear lots of different versions and view points of what went wrong at Microsoft over the last decade but none of it really matters anymore -- today's Microsoft is a different company, run by many different people at different levels. Proof of that? Just look at the swift response Microsoft posted the day the op-ed was released.

[Image from Robert Scoble]

Michael Gartenberg is vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC. His weblog can be found at Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.