innovation and all that jazz…

A few days back Rory Blyth blogged about innovation (here, here and here). While I respect everyone’s opinions on various topics, I’d like to think that I am always the one that’s right about them <wink>. So here’s my take on it…

“Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity.” (Anonymous)

I disagree that we (at Microsoft) do not innovate. I’ve seen some of the cleverest-est products come out of this company - some products that are brand spanking new, some that’ve been modified and tailored for specific purposes, and some that’ve come only because they’re overdue and because its time to “catch up”. In any case, I count all of the above as innovation. Innovation does not necessarily have to be about creating a new flavor of ice cream or doing something creative just because... Sometimes its just about recognizing a void and knowing how best to fill it.

Yesterday, I blogged about how I’d been back at Cisco this past week… One of the most compelling reasons for me to leave Cisco was that they had stopped innovating. Engineering a project to success from inception is a software development engineer’s dream. But, lets take a look at Cisco’s success in recent years… Apart from a (kickass) routing product and AON, most of the other technologies that they’ve dove in to have come from acquisitions (Cat6k, Aironet, Linksys just to name a few). Cisco (has) had stopped trusting its engineering to be creative and innovative. And I believe there’s no better morale buster to an engineering organization’s developers. Cisco’s best talent is no longer their engineering – its their team of strategic management folk who decide which company they should acquire (that week).

In contrast, lets look at Microsoft – have you seen Longhorn? I was blown away! Where do I start about all the creative features that’ve gone in to it? What about Excel? (Excel, according to me, is one of the most brilliant pieces of software ever created) What about the VS2K5’s IDE, and all its brilliant features? And I can keep going, but who cares about me blowing my (our) own horn? You get the idea… that was innovation and creativity at its best dammit!

“The me too game”

To quote Rory on his post at :

“To whom was the Linux camp answering? The answer, at first, was: itself.”

A few lines down…

“When Microsoft was fastening that polished Lexus exterior onto the Windows chassis, Linux could have gone in any number of other directions. It didn’t have to play the “me too” game.” (Rory Blyth, about midway through

Exactly… This makes perfect sense. At first, they were answering to themselves. The goal was to create Linux, an open-sourced environment, well, mostly for the fun of it. Later, intiatives got formed, some vendors wanted to make some moolah, and provide an alternative for the UNIX development platform. Then some more vendors decided to make some more $$, the existing ones got greedier, and the only other space left to compete in was the end-user desktop market. And thats why KDE and Gnome have become so popular. It had to be done… The SuSE’s and the RedHat’s now had answered the “Why Linux?” question with “Why not Linux?” And to pose a symmetrical point, what do you think the purpose of Monad is? What about the .NET? We’re playing the “me too” game ourselves. People will continue to argue that such projects have really come out of desperation to get in to a market and that is not necessarily innovation. But lets stop hovering all the way up above the atmosphere, and get down to earth. Lets compare feature-sets tete-a-tete, and tell me there’s nothing innovative in these products. Identifying a weak implementation or a serious limitation and knowing what to do about it, to change it for the better, is innovation.

One of the things I admire most about this company is our relentless pursuit to do better, and our aggressioin. I admit, some of our best ideas and features have come from our competition (thats putting “we copied an idea to enter a market” mildly). But whats wrong with that? As Chambers once said (and I don’t quote him very much), in response to a question he was asked about Juniper and competition, “competition is healthy, and without it we wouldn’t know how well we are or are not doing” (paraphrasing)

Anyhoo, from where did all this hype about innovation come about? Honest-to-Megan Mullaly, a week ago I was talking to a friend about innovation (yes, before the Rodawgg blogged about it). Then Scoble asks Ballmer for his opinion on it.

For the past few days, the song “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” by the Black Eyed Peas has been playing over and over on 94.9. And, I really couldn’t figure out how the song went, so I kept going,

“No, no, no, no, don’t phunk with my heart
I wonder if I take you home
Would you be innovative (innovative)”

(real lyrics over here)


PS: Word count in this post
innovative : 4
innovation : 9
Cisco : 5

Comments (7)
  1. I agree with you that there’s nothing wrong with competing by copying someone else’s good idea – in fact, without that there’d be no competition in the software market at all. There’d certainly be no Linux if Linus hadn’t had Unix to copy. So while I’ll criticise MS for many things, copying other people’s ideas isn’t one of them.

    One of them IS, however, trying to stop other people from copying YOU. We agree that copying good ideas is good for competition and good for the end user, so threatening lawsuits against competitors if they dare to copy Indigo or Avalon because those things contain some unspecified "Intellectual Property" is BAD for competition and BAD for the end user.

    Compete by producing the best product and being staying ahead of the game (yes, by being innovative!) Don’t compete by suing the competition.

    We hear constantly how much work has gone into Indigo, Avalon and Longhorn. If this is true and they really are as tough to get right as you guys claim they are, it’d take Mono forever to clone them anyway, right? By which point you’ll be two steps further ahead.

    Threatening lawsuits just makes it seem like you’re less confident in your technological advantage than you claim to be. While also pissing off your customers.

    Ok, I know you probably had nothing to do with the decision to try to shutdown the Mono people’s efforts to clone WinFX. But actions like that do directly contradict the point you’re trying to make about MS being innovative. At least some part of MS’s corporate brain doesn’t have confidence in its own innovation.

  2. Anand (the other one :-) says:

    If you think Excel is Micrsoft’s innovation, you are a newbie to computers. Please check out Lotus 123, which in turn succeeded VisiCalc. (I am not counting Excel’s individual features which maynot have been in others, since you discounted Cat6k. Cat6k was developed in-house, it was Cat5k that was aquired).

    Glad you did not cite GUI, Windows and the Mouse as MicroSoft innovations. Well, ‘Clippy’ is their own, though 🙂

  3. Anand,

    I am torn between what sounds more annoying – your wannabe-sarcasm or your nitpicking. Granted you appear to want to sound old, but please, do not use that as an excuse to claim knowledge or intelligence. Excel’s features are innovative and beautiful. Please read the post carefully – specifically the portion that outlines the fact that sometimes products get created to enter markets, and have been developed over time to become better ones. And those individual features are "innovative".

    You’re right in that the Cat5K was the one that was acquired. I have not discounted the Cat6k – I think its a beautiful beast, but the point I wanted to drive home was the lack of innovation from Cisco’s engineering in recent times.


    PS: Just FYI, by calling yourself "the other one" you’re claiming there’s only two ‘Anand’s in the world… Thought you were the only who could be nitpicky?

  4. AI says:


    > so threatening lawsuits against competitors

    > if they dare to copy Indigo or Avalon

    > because those things contain some

    > unspecified "Intellectual Property" is BAD

    > for competition

    The last I heard Novell wasn’t even considering implementing Indigo (not sure about Avalon) or anything remotely similar. Is this not the case anymore?

    Are there genuine customer requirements for these stacks with Mono on Linux?


  5. "The last I heard Novell wasn’t even considering implementing Indigo or anything remotely similar."

    The last I heard was that somebody had proposed to start a subproject working on Indigo, but the ultimate consensus within the project was not to do so after Microsoft started making noise about "IP". It’s claimed that the decision not to implement it has nothing to do with Microsoft, but I’m sure it was a factor for at least some people.

    "Are there genuine customer requirements for these stacks with Mono on Linux?"

    The word "customer" and the reference to Novell betray a misconception about the goals of Mono. I certainly can’t tell you whether any of Novell’s customers would pay them for support for either of these things.

    But Mono is an Open Source project, and Open Source projects in general have as their goal "whatever someone feels is important enough to write the code for", whether that "someone" is a company, an individual, or a loose-knit collaboration of individuals and/or companies. (That’s an oversimplification, but it will suffice to make my point).

    The fact that some guy posted to the Mono mailing list proposing to start a project implementing Indigo is de facto confirmation that there’s interest in doing it. (I’m not personally interested – unfortunately the Indigo team has so far failed to explain what Indigo actually is to a sufficient level for me to see its value)

    Likewise, my own blog ( carries de facto confirmation that there’s interest in Avalon on Mono, because I have a need for it (I’m not personally volunteering to implement it, but the sheer coolness and power of Avalon makes me absolutely certain that I’m not going to be the only one interested).

    So I can’t tell you if there are "customer" requirements, but there are certainly user requirements, and the strength of Open Source is that it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a paying customer or not if you can convince enough developers that your idea is good.

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