Microsoft’s Version of Innovation or Something

June 3rd, 2011

So there’s a report this week about Microsoft’s first demonstration of the next great version of Windows, known at least for now as Windows 8. This comes on the heels of a curious action from Microsoft’s PR department, where they walked back a statement from CEO Steve Ballmer about Windows 8, and its possible arrival next year. Part of it “correction” was the statement that the name hadn’t been established yet.

But that didn’t stop a Windows executive from calling it Windows 8 and demonstrating it anyway, and it is expected some time in 2012, assuming nothing changes.

Of course, Ballmer’s behavior has always been strange, and not just because his prognostications are almost universally wrong, and his put-downs of competing products, such as Apple’s iPhone, fail to damage their targets. It’s almost as if Ballmer lives in what the comic book fans would call “Bizarro Land,” where everything is the opposite of our reality.

But Ballmer isn’t the only Microsoft executive who is mixed up about future technologies and, in fact, their vision of “innovation.” When the U.S. Department of Justice first went after Microsoft for various alleged antitrust violations, then-CEO Bill Gates said the company simply wanted the freedom to innovate. That word is regularly misused in the PC universe, not just by Microsoft, but by industry pundits who speak of new products and services.

However, it’s hard to look at most of what Microsoft does and not find another company who got there first. Past even Windows, originally a very clumsy DOS shell that copied the Mac OS, Microsoft has almost invariably been behind the curve.

So Apple is busy putting the final touches on Mac OS 10.7, code-named Lion, which will sport features adapted from the iOS. Microsoft, seeing the threat, decides to stage a demonstration of a competing OS a week before Apple’s WWDC, where the final wraps will be lifted from Lion. Maybe they hoped for a leg up, but the interface seems a curious blend of the admittedly neat iconic display of Windows Phone 7, with the traditional Windows OS. Microsoft is also adapting Windows to run on ARM processors, the chips used in most of today’s mobile computers. Remember that even Apple’s A4 and A5 are basically ARM processors customized by the company’s in-house processor development team.

You can easily imagine Ballmer watching the first Apple demonstration of Lion, with a six-pack at his desk, screaming at the top of his lungs how Microsoft has to match that concept. That is not to say that the look and feel of Windows Phone 7 is necessarily a poor copy of the iOS or Android, but I can’t forget the passing resemblance to Apple’s original Mac OS Launcher utility, from the 1990s, which sported square icons that, with a single click, would launch the app you selected.

Of course, if Windows Phone 7 was a huge success, it would make sense for Microsoft to want to graft some of its features, even if it’s a rush job, onto the next Windows upgrade. But the uptake of their mobile OS has been very poor. Few care, other than, apparently, Nokia, which licensed Windows Phone 7 months after a former Microsoft executive became its CEO. Curious that few tech analysts attempt to probe the significance.

At any rate, Microsoft sees a huge advantage in throwing billions of dollars at Nokia, which is still the world’s largest mobile handset maker, although sales are heavily dominated by cheaper gear. But when the first smartphones stemming from this alignment of convenience appear next year, you have to wonder about Microsoft’s other Windows Phone 7 partners, who have to pay license fees, rather than receive huge spiffs for their efforts. You have to think that, despite the claims of some that they still support Microsoft, they will jump ship fast when the first round of Nokia handsets featuring the OS come to market.

I’m also still wondering how the Bing remake of Microsoft’s search engine will fare on the long haul. It appears the only market growth results from the fact that Yahoo! uses the Bing engine. Google’s share is relatively unchanged, and that’s the unkindest cut of all. Besides, just what advantage is Microsoft offering, other than a flashier and more cluttered interface? Are search results any better? The jury may be out on that one, but I fail to see any improvement, at least for the searching I do. Your mileage may vary.

While all this occurs, and some people urge Ballmer to step down, Microsoft also needs to learn that the word innovation is not a synonym for running a copying machine.

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