Critics Take Aim At Microsoft's Innovation Chops

In a Thursday op-ed piece in The New York Times, Dick Brass, a Microsoft vice president from 1997 to 2004, describes Microsoft as a "clumsy, uncompetitive innovator" whose products "are lampooned, often unfairly but sometimes with good reason."

Brass cites political wrangling between internal Microsoft product groups as a reason why it took a decade for Microsoft to incorporate ClearType, a technology for making text more readable on device screens, into Windows. Internal politics are also the reason why Office still can't run directly on a tablet PC, according to Brass.

"Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation," Brass writes.

One solution provider who has worked with Microsoft over the years agrees with Brass' views.

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"It's exactly what I have seen from outside the last decade, looking into the world they operate in," says Jeff Middleton, a Microsoft Small Business Server MVP based in Metairie, La. "The people there are outstanding, the product teams are enlightened and brilliant on many levels. It's curious how this can still yield less than astonishing results in the market."

Microsoft's stance is that speed of innovation isn't its primary focus. Instead, Microsoft strives for innovation that results in products with far reaching influence. "We measure our work by its broad impact," writes Frank Shaw, vice president of corporate communications at Microsoft, in a Thursday afternoon blog post.

Although some might attribute Brass' views to the venom ex-employees often spew against their former companies, it's worth noting that he spends the first half of his piece praising the company's achievements over the past decade. This doesn't sound like a hit piece, especially when weighed against the similar assessments other respected industry figures have made recently of the problems Microsoft faces.

In December, Mark Anderson, author of the influential Strategic News Service newsletter, pulled no punches in a discussion of Microsoft's efforts to raise its profile in the consumer space.

"Except for gaming, it is 'game over' for Microsoft in the consumer market," Anderson told The New York Times. "It's time to declare Microsoft a loser in phones. Just get out of Dodge."

Don Dodge, who spent five years at Microsoft as an evangelist working with startup and venture capital communities, and was laid off last November, now works for Google as a developer advocate. In a Tuesday blog post, he talked about switching from PCs to Macs and gushed over the magnificence of Apple product design.

More telling, though, was Dodge's assertion that operating systems are no longer the primary way that people interface with computers. "From my perspective the underlying OS doesn't matter much. All my applications run in the browser," Dodge wrote.

For Microsoft, which has sold 60 million copies of Windows 7 since launching it just over three months ago, Dodge's comment jabs at the heart of one of its two main revenue engines. Windows 7 buoyed Microsoft's recent quarterly earnings, but that's not going to continue forever.

Meanwhile, the question marks hanging over Microsoft's enterprise and consumer businesses aren't going away. And what's especially troubling for Microsoft is that the critical voices, who could once be safely corralled into the anti-Microsoft camp, are now coming from people who hold the company in high esteem.