Microsoft's new product R&D suffers from an internal culture of infighting and refusal to evolve, according to an op-ed piece by former Vice President Dick Brass published in The New York Times. As a result, Brass asserts, the Windows maker is failing even as it reports record profits. Furthermore, he says, Microsoft's attempts to develop a tablet PC nearly a decade ago were at least partially doomed by a refusal to modify popular Office applications to interface properly with such a device.
Despite announcing strong revenues for the second fiscal quarter of 2010,
Microsoft is "failing" due to an inability to innovate and a tendency
to let infighting kill potential blockbuster projects, according to a former
Microsoft executive who says he worked on projects such as a commercial tablet
PC earlier in the decade.
"When we were building the tablet PC in 2001, the vice president in
charge of Office at the time decided he didn't like the concept," Dick
Brass, a Microsoft vice president from 1997 until 2004, wrote
in a Feb. 4 opinion piece in The New York Times. "The tablet required
a stylus, and he much preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts
According to Brass' narrative, which has been widely circulated online, the
unnamed vice president refused to "modify the popular Office applications
to work properly with the tablet. So if you wanted to enter a number into a
spreadsheet or correct a word in an e-mail message, you had to write it in a
special pop-up box, which then transferred the information to Office." This
process was clumsy, Brass said, and to this day, "You still can't use
Office directly on a tablet PC."
The tablet group at Microsoft was eventually eliminated, despite what Brass
termed the "certainty" that Apple was busy developing a tablet PC.
But not all of Microsoft's supposed issues over the past few years have been
due to interdepartmental battles, according to Brass: "Part of the problem
is a historic preference to develop (highly profitable) software without
undertaking (highly risky) hardware."
While that stance may have made sense in 1975, Brass added, it "now
makes it far more difficult to create tightly integrated, beautifully designed
products like an iPhone or Tivo."
Microsoft attempted to put a positive spin on Brass' comments. In a Feb. 4 post on the official
Microsoft Blog, Frank Shaw, corporate vice president of corporate communications,
responded: "Former Microsoft employee Dick Brass has an op-ed in the NYT
arguing that our better days are behind us ... and using examples from his tenure
to make the point that the company can no longer compete or innovate.
Obviously, we disagree."
Shaw argued that what matters most for Microsoft is its ability to deliver
technologies that have a "broad impact." That paradigm depends more
on market penetration than speed: "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."
Perhaps recognizing the potential of tablet PCs to alter the hardware
landscape in the near future, particularly given the expected launch of Apple's
iPad, Microsoft pushed tablet PCs at January's Consumer Electronics Show.
During a Jan. 6 keynote address, Ballmer unveiled a tablet PC built by Hewlett-Packard,
and other Microsoft OEMs used their space on the convention floor to show off
tablet PCs or tablet-convertible laptops with multitouch screens.
"Almost as portable as a phone, but powerful as a PC running Windows
7," Ballmer said as he held the HP tablet PC toward the audience.
"The emerging category of PCs should take advantage of ... touch and
portability capabilities." The device, which will be available at an unknown
point in 2010, will be able to surf the Web and display e-books and multimedia
Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.