Microsoft and Google Innovation

10/31/2005 10:56:45 AM

Microsoft and Google Innovation

I have written about the perceived lack of innovation at Microsoft in the past. There has been an Wired article on the topic of whether Microsoft was an innovator or integrator.

One Microsoftee commenter remarked that Microsoft was indeed an innovator, but that these innovations are missed because they are packaged within larger, established applications. Bill Gates admits in the Wired article that Microsoft produces mostly “incremental innovations.”

I am inclined to believe that many of the PDC announcements such as LINQ and Office 12 ribbon interface are indeed first-rate innovations. Also, other inventions that come to mind include TabletPC and OneNote. However, there is still the lingering feeling that these innovations would have come to pass anyway… that they are not disruptive enough.

I spoke to an ex-Microsoftee who left to work for Google, and stated that I could not imagine Microsoft coming up with the product that I am developing—copying, sure, but inventing, no. We came to the conclusion that Microsoft can’t really embarked on these kinds of disruptively innovative products for a couple of reasons:

  1. Microsoft depends on a predictable, schedulable development process, which limits the amount of research. Microsoft does have a dedicated research division, which have improved their pipeline from research to development in recent years.
  2. Most developers that Microsoft hires are straight out of college with bachelor degrees. Most of them are therefore generalists, in contrasts to specialists, who have advanced degrees or domain expertise from years in specialized industries. The lack of specialization and depth in Microsoft engineers probably limits, to a great extent, the level of innovation to the incremental variety.

Interestingly, Google is somewhat different in both these respects:

  1. Google offers 20% time, which frees up one day of the work week for employees to do research projects, that may ultimately benefit the company.
  2. The two founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, were adamant that the future CEO, which happened to be Eric Schmidt, have a PhD degrees. I assume that the makeup of the rest of company is more heavily weighted to advanced degrees than at Microsoft.

Chris Anderson, an architect at Microsoft, recently defended Microsoft's practice of asking PhD's simple programming questions in interviews despite risking insult to the interviewee. I know that Microsoft used to be very pragmatic and business-minded and tended to eschew the (highly) academic, but I suspect the atmosphere is much different now. Joel reports that another ex-Microsoftee, who relocated to Google, remarked that “Google works and thinks at a higher level of abstraction than Microsoft.”

Hmmm… Will we see Google churn out interesting disruptive innovations faster than Microsoft? Let’s wait and see.

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Net Undocumented is a blog about the internals of .NET including Xamarin implementations. Other topics include managed and web languages (C#, C++, Javascript), computer science theory, software engineering and software entrepreneurship.

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