Former Microsoft VP accuses company of stifling innovation

Anyone who follows technology knows that Microsoft’s image as a tech innovator has been kicked around like a soccer ball for many years now.

Once known as the innovator in personal computing, Microsoft has watched as mean and lean companies like Google, Apple and RIM revealed to us the future of Web-based apps, multimedia players and smartphones.

Why does a company with so many talented people fail to break new ground?

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Some new insights arrived in a New York Times op-ed yesterday penned by a former Microsoft VP named Dick Brass.

The root cause, Brass writes, is the big egos and power struggles inside the buildings in Redmond that stifle innovation. A “dysfunctional corporate culture … routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers,” he writes.

And those who think outside the box end up packing their boxes – and leaving.

The recent high-profile departures of Windows senior executives Bill Veighte and Mike Nash may or may not have been amicable, but it goes to show that talented people are leaving Redmond.

Brass writes: “Microsoft is no longer considered the cool or cutting edge place to work. There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest.”

And it shows. Microsoft has been missing from the list of culture-defining tech products.

It still relies on old standbys Windows and Office, and, at least for the time being, it still profits greatly from them. But these fat cash cows are old technologies that Microsoft keeps covering with a new coat of paint.

“Microsoft’s huge profits – $6.7 billion for the past quarter – come almost entirely from Windows and Office programs first developed decades ago,” Brass writes.

“Like G.M. with its trucks and S.U.V.’s, Microsoft can’t count on these venerable products to sustain it forever.”

Brass does not come across as a bitter score settler, but rather someone heeding the personal call to vent about a company he once admired.

During his tenure in Redmond, Brass frequently found that efforts to innovate were sabotaged by more influential groups.

A graphics display technology called ClearType that would help sell e-books was quashed by powerful players in the Windows and Office divisions because, Brass writes, they felt threatened.

Ten years passed before ClearType made it into Windows.

Efforts to build a tablet PC in 2001 were also tripped up by a VP who refused to modify Office apps so they would work with the tablet.

The tablet group was eventually eliminated despite support from top management and hundreds of millions in development funding.

Brass must have been wincing as Apple unveiled the iPad tablet last week, and it is entirely justified that he be angry that technologies he tried to develop at Microsoft became the product of another company a few years later.

Microsoft corporate communications offered this response to Brass’s op-ed.

They respectfully disagree with Brass’s view that Microsoft is no longer innovative (They also disagree with his definition of innovation).

Every big corporation has resentful ex-employees. It’s the way it is in the big leagues. But Microsoft’s aggrieved alumni seem more driven than most to tell the world why they left Microsoft and why it is on the road to ruin.

He may not have graced the pages of the New York Times, but former Microsoftie and current Linux guru Keith Curtis is, like Brass, not happy with his old employer.

Curtis, a programmer with Microsoft for 11 years who left the company in 2004, wrote a book about thow the Redmond way will fail called “After the Software Wars.”

In it, Curtis writes that proprietary software will ultimately fail because it doesn’t let software programmers cooperate and contribute, and thus stifles innovation.

As long as Microsoft and its proprietary model dominate, Curtis says, we will live in “the dark ages of computing.”

With its widespread layoffs last year, there are 5,800 new ex-Microsofties who are probably not singing Redmond’s praises these days.

Brass’s thoughtful, well-written New York Times piece was flying all over Twitter yesterday and was bad PR for Microsoft at a time when its revenues are improving, Windows 7 is selling well, and its Bing search engine, arguably Microsoft’s first innovative product in awhile, is challenging search king Google.

The best you can say is that with the layoffs, Microsoft is a leaner company that will rise above internal politics to rediscover its creative spark.

According to former Microsoft vice president Dick Brass, the company’s future depends on it.

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