A few days back Rory Blyth blogged about innovation (here, here and here). While I respect everyone’s opinions on various topics, I’d like to think that I am always the one that’s right about them <wink>. So here’s my take on it…

“Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity.” (Anonymous)

I disagree that we (at Microsoft) do not innovate. I’ve seen some of the cleverest-est products come out of this company - some products that are brand spanking new, some that’ve been modified and tailored for specific purposes, and some that’ve come only because they’re overdue and because its time to “catch up”. In any case, I count all of the above as innovation. Innovation does not necessarily have to be about creating a new flavor of ice cream or doing something creative just because... Sometimes its just about recognizing a void and knowing how best to fill it.

Yesterday, I blogged about how I’d been back at Cisco this past week… One of the most compelling reasons for me to leave Cisco was that they had stopped innovating. Engineering a project to success from inception is a software development engineer’s dream. But, lets take a look at Cisco’s success in recent years… Apart from a (kickass) routing product and AON, most of the other technologies that they’ve dove in to have come from acquisitions (Cat6k, Aironet, Linksys just to name a few). Cisco (has) had stopped trusting its engineering to be creative and innovative. And I believe there’s no better morale buster to an engineering organization’s developers. Cisco’s best talent is no longer their engineering – its their team of strategic management folk who decide which company they should acquire (that week).

In contrast, lets look at Microsoft – have you seen Longhorn? I was blown away! Where do I start about all the creative features that’ve gone in to it? What about Excel? (Excel, according to me, is one of the most brilliant pieces of software ever created) What about the VS2K5’s IDE, and all its brilliant features? And I can keep going, but who cares about me blowing my (our) own horn? You get the idea… that was innovation and creativity at its best dammit!

“The me too game”

To quote Rory on his post at http://neopoleon.com/blog/posts/15058.aspx :

“To whom was the Linux camp answering? The answer, at first, was: itself.”

A few lines down…

“When Microsoft was fastening that polished Lexus exterior onto the Windows chassis, Linux could have gone in any number of other directions. It didn’t have to play the “me too” game.” (Rory Blyth, about midway through http://neopoleon.com/blog/posts/15058.aspx)

Exactly… This makes perfect sense. At first, they were answering to themselves. The goal was to create Linux, an open-sourced environment, well, mostly for the fun of it. Later, intiatives got formed, some vendors wanted to make some moolah, and provide an alternative for the UNIX development platform. Then some more vendors decided to make some more $$, the existing ones got greedier, and the only other space left to compete in was the end-user desktop market. And thats why KDE and Gnome have become so popular. It had to be done… The SuSE’s and the RedHat’s now had answered the “Why Linux?” question with “Why not Linux?” And to pose a symmetrical point, what do you think the purpose of Monad is? What about the .NET? We’re playing the “me too” game ourselves. People will continue to argue that such projects have really come out of desperation to get in to a market and that is not necessarily innovation. But lets stop hovering all the way up above the atmosphere, and get down to earth. Lets compare feature-sets tete-a-tete, and tell me there’s nothing innovative in these products. Identifying a weak implementation or a serious limitation and knowing what to do about it, to change it for the better, is innovation.

One of the things I admire most about this company is our relentless pursuit to do better, and our aggressioin. I admit, some of our best ideas and features have come from our competition (thats putting “we copied an idea to enter a market” mildly). But whats wrong with that? As Chambers once said (and I don’t quote him very much), in response to a question he was asked about Juniper and competition, “competition is healthy, and without it we wouldn’t know how well we are or are not doing” (paraphrasing)

Anyhoo, from where did all this hype about innovation come about? Honest-to-Megan Mullaly, a week ago I was talking to a friend about innovation (yes, before the Rodawgg blogged about it). Then Scoble asks Ballmer for his opinion on it.

For the past few days, the song “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” by the Black Eyed Peas has been playing over and over on 94.9. And, I really couldn’t figure out how the song went, so I kept going,

“No, no, no, no, don’t phunk with my heart
I wonder if I take you home
Would you be innovative (innovative)”

(real lyrics over here)

“AI”

PS: Word count in this post
innovative : 4
innovation : 9
Cisco : 5