Tempering my earlier enthusiam, Rich Birkby said that Microsoft took the idea of compressed XML file formats from StarOffice. Indeed, here’s an early document describing the rationale for OpenOffice’s XML package format. Microsoft has the bigger podium and the larger microphone to push forth their claim to the invention.
This led me to wonder if Microsoft was capable of an original ideas. It’s rather a simplistic question, because Microsoft is not a monolithic company and also because the answer is actually yes…. In essence, it’s more about the riskiness of the idea and the largeness of its vision. Since originality often refers to a radical departure from the past instead of a natural evolution of product, the original “idea” may not necessarily be prove more beneficial to customers than a boring enhancement, but it’s those disruptive innovations that we tend to remember.
Bill Gates repeatedly refers to ClearType as an example of Microsoft innovation, which is almost like the exception that proves the rule. A few decriers even claim that the Apple II discovered the technology first, ignoring that Apple apparently abandoned it decades ago. There is also the failed social interface; you can take your pick whether Microsoft invented it or the Stanford researcher did, whose work Microsoft utilized.
At Microsoft, there are a number of incremental, customer-focused problems keep Microsoft’s hefty developer resources busy. However, smaller companies that have less secure futures are always looking for new exciting, highly leverageable ideas; it’s a survival matter as well as a source of passion.
Microsoft, as gatekeeper of the operating system, is also like a clearinghouse, that takes the best proven ideas from the market and incorporates them into product. This is generally good, because most people use Microsoft software and total utility is thereby maximized. When Microsoft developers take someone’s ideas, they often run with it and carry it much farther than the original thinkers. My favorite examples are .NET, PocketPC, and C#, although we do have questionable counterexamples in FrontPage and WebTV.
Lastly, I’ll say, I have dropped my jaws at some of the work I have seen in the past at Microsoft, so this isn’t really a fair question. I also do believe that great, original work will be coming out of Microsoft Research in the future.