I know, I know, I cringed a little when I wrote that title. How in the world could Microsoft, the kings of crushing creative competition, be accused of having anything positive to do with the world of tech innovation?
Well, fellow geeks, we just have to deal with the fact that the Microsoft of today is a far cry from the Microsoft that brought you Vista, Live, and boatloads of mediocre-but-necessary products.
I came to this conclusion while at SMX a few weeks ago. I had the opportunity to speak with one of the Bing engineers, Sasi Parthasarasy, as well as Melissa Powell, a Bing senior PM. The conversations were fascinating (and I even discovered a fellow Brandeis alum, Reid Maker, designing webmaster tools for MS). I made no bones about the fact that Microsoft has built up a well-deserved reputation for avoiding true innovation – XP lived as long as it did because, as it had such a stranglehold on the OS marketplace, there was no real need to spend money building, marketing and selling a new operating system.
And the Microsoft people didn’t disagree with me. They did, however, point to the huge strides the company has made in the past couple of years. Windows 7 is brilliant. Hell, I run it as the primary OS on my iMac (forgive me my transgressions Steve Jobs). Maybe part of its awesomeness is that Vista was so awful that anything would look great in comparison, but I don’t think so. Office 2010, which I’m running the beta of, is excellent – and truly, Office has always stood as the one unassailable product line in Microsoft’s portfolio. I’ve never had a single complaint about Office, and the alternatives – OpenOffice and Google Docs being the two that I’ve tried – always fell well short of what good ol’ Excel and Word can do.
Then there’s Bing. I’ve railed against Bing among friends and colleagues since its launch because, quite frankly, I didn’t see the business sense of trying to hammer a new search engine into the collective. Nobody ever complains about Google’s service or search quality – when was the last time you heard someone say “Damn that Google, it’s so hard to search with them,”? Never – no pain point, expensive marketing campaign, I saw failure in Bing’s future.
But they’ve actually done interesting things. Whether or not it will catch on, whether or not Microsoft will ever come close to threatening Google’s dominance, Bing is more evidence that Microsoft is using innovation to push themselves (finally) into the 21st century. Be it their innovative maps, their usage of realtime data, or their categorization of search results, Bing is at least different. They didn’t, as I feared, take the “cuil” approach – claim better search results and a catchy name and massively fail to give any real reason for people to use their service.
Take note, innovative companies of the world – Microsoft is one of you, at least for right now. How long this will last is anyone’s guess, but attacking their behemoth size and inability to make quick changes or noticeable innovations is not going to work as well as it used to.
The world is in a very weird place right now.