Microsoft Suffers from Creative Difficulties, Says Former Exec

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 doomed."

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.

Click here for a look at netbooks and tablets shown at CES.

"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 content.