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Innovation in the computer industry

Innovation in the computer industry

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The germ of this post was a comment I made on Robert Scoble's weblog, but it deserves broader distribution (that also explains why it's sort-of two ideas mashed together) :)

One of the memes that I see going on in the boards (especially on /.) is that Microsoft never innovates; it only ever copies what others have done before.  I find this meme rather fascinating because it is SO wrong.  The thing is that the people who cite this meme set the bar impossibly high - by their definition, if an idea isn't the very first example of an idea, then it was copied, and thus wasn't innovative.

The problem is that if the bar for "innovative" is that nobody has ever done it before, than the list of "innovations" in the PC industry is very, very, very small - the web is a repackaging of hypertext (HTML is a stripped down SGML), the MacIntosh was done before on the Lisa (which was done before on the Star (which was done before on the Perq (which was done before on the Alto))).

In the past 25 years, I can only think of two or three truly innovative ideas that weren't rehashes of previous ideas:
      Clippy/Bob. (Don't laugh. Innovative doesn't necessarily mean "a good idea" - it means a NOVEL idea. I believe that Bob was the first shipping social UI (I may be wrong on this one)).

Actually, the more I think about it, the number of things that are truly original is even smaller than I thought.

For instance GUI operating systems like the Mac or Windows don't count, since there were GUI operating systems more than 25 years ago (the Perq as mentioned above).

P2P filesharing like Kazaa or Gnutella don't count as innovative, because they are simply the Windows for Workgroups network browser extended to content and scaled up to the Internet, and WfW was just an extension of the Lan Manager browser made peer-to-peer.  Btw, to answer someone who posted in the Scoble comment thread: pure file sharing services like FTP have been around forever, but they have a discoverability issue.  The thing that makes a distributed data store (like file sharing services or the WWW) successful is the directory – consider what finding something on the web would be like without Google or its cousins.

CD's and DVD's don't count, they are just another storage medium based on older technologies (and CDs are 22 years old anyway).

Gnu/Linux isn't innovative by this definition; they're just rehashes of UNIX, which is almost 40 years old.

Neither are Flight Simulators or other games, most of the classes of computer gaming available today were available in 1980 (they weren't as pretty, but the concepts were there). MMORPG's have their origins in the MUDs of the late 1970's and early 1980's.

The bottom line is that defining innovation as strictly "Doing something that nobody has ever done before" is so restrictive that it's pointless. Instead, focus on what's new and different. That's where the TRUE innovation lies.

As a simple example, as Robert mentioned in one of his comments, Microsoft Office was innovative. Each of the applications bundled in office wasn't new, but nobody had ever thought of creating a suite by packaging other products together.  And Office wasn't just innovative marketing. Up until the debut of Office, developers created suites like Lotus Symphony, Claris Works, etc...You bundled a spreadsheet, word processor, and database into a single application, which did none of the features as well as the stand-alone applications.

The thing that made Office successful (and unbelievably innovative) was the incredible amount of synergy you got from the different applications - you could take a spreadsheet, drop a chart created from the spreadsheet into a word document, and have the word document be updated in real-time as the spreadsheet changed. For the PC industry, THAT was innovative, and 100% technical. And EACH of the applications was as full featured as the others - so you didn't sacrifice functionality for coolness.

The thing is that innovation isn't always being the first with an idea.  Sometimes it's the little things that make a huge difference.

The innovations in Windows NT are extraordinary (they really are).  Even the much maligned registry is innovative - before the registry existed, every app and its cousin had its own set of configuration files, each of which had its own syntax and standards.  This meant that it was extraordinarily difficult to write management tools to operate on disparate applications, which limited the ability of IT departments to manage diverse configurations.  In addition, there was no real story for per-user configuration in Windows; each application had to solve it in their own way (which usually meant that they didn't bother).  The registry provided a one-stop-shopping solution for a huge set of configuration issues.  This isn't to say that the registry couldn't be abused, it could.  But it was far better than the other solutions (when was the last time you lost a configuration change due to the filesystem not transacting writes to your config data - this was a common problem in pre-registry times).

NT's ACL infrastructure was just another ACL infrastructure.  But it allowed for a staggering amount of flexibility in implementation - you can do things with the NT ACL infrastructure that are way beyond the concepts that the original creators of the ACL infrastructure intended.

Robert's original post was a "letter to Bill" about upcoming innovations in content creation.  IMHO, Robert's 100% right-on - with the creation of blogging (and other similar forms of EASY content authoring like moblogging and audioblogging, and podcasting, etc), there is another wave of web content coming, and it's important for MS to be ahead of the curve and not catching up.

When the web first debuted, everyone talked about how the web provided a level playing field for content creation.  And in many ways that was the case,  But the reality is that barrier to entry for publishing content on the web was way too high - you had to find hosting space, then author pages individually.

This has affected me personally I've had hundreds of stories and dozens of articles pent up inside me for years now that I couldn't publish because the barrier to entry was too high.  Publishing by hand had too much overhead for me, I didn't want to take the time to design and implement the content management system to handle all the publishing aspects.  And then there was the issue of driving traffic to the site - there's no point in putting up content if people aren't going to read it.  Until services like etc came along, there wasn't an easy mechanism for updating content and informing consumers that the content had changed. Blogging/RSS/whatever gives all of these, which means that the complexity level required to produce content has been lowered again. 

But blogging and its friends have lowered the bar to the point where Abby could easily start producing content.  The barriers to entry are low enough that ANYONE can start a blog, and the creation of content has been democratized.  Creation of content is now trivial, and that's a good thing.


  • I think the actual biggest complaint about Microsoft innovation isn't that they aren't doing it, it's that they tend to just buy it and claim credit.
  • One item to me that seems to be an innovation is the creation of mouse gestures. It may have come in another form (voice commands), but to put it in a usable form (my first exposure was MyIE2) and to have it help me become more productive, that to me is innovation.
  • IMHO, the registry is one of the weaknesses of the Windows platform. It can introduce indeterminism because Win32 apps don't just store user preferences in the registry, but also data vital to the correct functioning of the program, like where COM/OLE objects can be loaded from.
    Also, the registry is not self-documenting unlike the plain text configuration files found in the UNIX world, so it is harder to determine if the settings for an app are correct.
    One further point is that one can easily back up plain text configuration files using a built -in backup command called "cp". Good luck with fiddling around with Registry Editor and making sure you have all of the settings.

    On the other hand, the security infrastructure in NT is very versatile. However, it can also be too complicated in some situations. Imagine the situation of a CIFS share. It is very difficult to determine whether a user has a particular type of access right to that share given that one has to check the NTFS permissions, CIFS share permissions and legacy DOS-style permissions. You also have to check which groups the user is in and whether they have been allowed or denied and then what priority the groups have. A bit too complicated for the average network manager don't you think!
  • That is one of the funniest comments I've heard in a while: "Also, the registry is not self-documenting unlike the plain text configuration files found in the UNIX world".

    Seriously? Self documenting? Text Files?

    Without looking at a manual, what are the consequences of setting rlimit_rss on xinetd?

    How about the "prefork" value in cyrus.conf?

    How is that any more self-documened than PriortyQuantumMatrix (found in HKLM\System\CCS\Control\Session Manager\Executive (and no, I don't know what it does, it was just an obscure param I found))?

    Text files are not inherently "self-documenting".

    Having said that, it IS possible to write self-documenting config files. And it's not possible to do that with the registry.

    But adding the ability to comment text config files that means you need to write a parser for the text files. Also, there's no way of transacting access to the text files - How does your server know that the .conf file has changed and how does it guarantee that when it reads the .conf file it doesn't get a partial write from some config tool?

    The registry guarantees transacted access, and with Last-Known-Good, it even has the ability to fall back to known good configurations in the event of a catestrophic failure. When you add system restore points (which are essentially backups of the ENTIRE registry, not just HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet), the system has the ability to snapshot the state of the entire system, not just the .conf files that it finds.

    Oh, and system restore points are how you back up the registry, if you care :)

    Oh, and with Win2K and beyond, the "Advanced" tab of the security permissions dialog has an "effective permissions" tab that lets you input an arbitrary user's name and see what effective rights that user has on a resource. Now there's a bit of complication there added by share access, but...
  • A number of points that miss your points.

    1. Bob was shipping product? Which particular person did you ship bob to? AFAIK sales were zero. I seen screenshots in computer mags but have not met any peron who have seen it live.

    2. Most Dos games a better than Windows games. I look at various 3D shooters and RTCW is no better to play than Wolf 3D. Warcraft 2 is as good as any of the Age Of Empires. With the exception of Space Simulator (a real dog) Dos simulators work as well then as now (although MS's one was always the worse).

    3. Office isn't and wasn't innovative. I can't stand office. It is NOT integrated. Excel is not even a Windows complient program - it's more a Lotus 123 clone tarted up for windows. Lets look at excel.
    a/ Cut, Copy, and Paste do not work in the Windows way but in old Dos programs way.
    b/ Keystrokes are totally stupid. Since when is Home - Arrow Key a standard windows keystroke.
    c/ Plus there is the usual office problems. It's refusal to use any Windows servoices (like menus, status bar, toolbars, file open dialogs,

    While Access can have similar charges leveled at it, it is still a better tool for most spreadsheet tasks (and note Excel is the leading [in market share] DATABASE product).
  • Do any Age Of ... development team people blog? All these RTS games promise so much and deliver so little.

    I've learnt to NEVER look at scenario editors (once one realises just how stupid the computer is it spoils the game, like stealing the pocket money of a three year old - there's nothing to be proud of when sucessful). I played Harpoon (incl snapping the CD in half so I couldn't reinstall it - but I found a warez copy) and as soon as I discovered that the enemy followed a preplanned course and that was all it destroyed the challenge.

    PS a good inovative idea is spell checking in HTML Text Boxes (and in Windows text boxes too).

    My idea for a RTS is an intelligent opponent. One thing about the MS Soldier games (can't remember the name) was that soldiers didn't follow orders (they hid from bullets and wouldn't charge machine guns.

    Likewise I belive that splitting the AI among smaller units will give the appearance of intelligence.

    EG. Embarking on a war one should have a strategy. There should be what is called in Americian Discourse "The National Command Authority" that picks one of a limited number of strategies based on simple formulas, if outnumbered use manuveour (see what I said about spell checking), if stronger use annihilation (had to use OE's spell checker to spell that one), or perhaps choose a protracted war if outclassed.

    Then higher tactical units (operational level)form a course of action based on the above and enemy units (block approaches, attack enemy capital, defend own capital).

    The lower tactical units follow orders (out flank, fix, retreat) but react to nearby enemy units (turn to face a flanking attack, retreat before cut off, detach smaller units as a block). And this is repeated to smaller tactical units.

    Each unit is quite dumb on it's own (say weighs 4 factors and choose from 3 cources of actions) but far smarter than Harpoon.

    This will have several benifits
    1. Opponents aren't predictable. I've defeated each enemy in the exact same way. A strong defence, bleed the enemy, then attack.

    2. Micromanagement is removed. The computers advantage currently is it can manage, in its own stupid way, all units. Humans can't if they want enjoyment from the game.
  • I enjoyed the post. I kept reading and feeling like the argument against using "first example" criteria and instead looking for "what's new and different" while applicable to technology, really belonged more in the realm of IP law.

    In technology, if I am the first person to write a spreadsheet program, I cannot stop people from competing with me. However with other aspects of IP I can define a context, eg a trademarked character, song or movie, and stop people from using that context to express themselves.

    As we see in technology, the use of derivative works is a good thing for the field as whole. How come this is not more realized in other areas as well?
  • "3. Office isn't and wasn't innovative. I can't stand office. It is NOT integrated. Excel is not even a Windows complient program - it's more a Lotus 123 clone tarted up for windows. Lets look at excel.
    a/ Cut, Copy, and Paste do not work in the Windows way but in old Dos programs way.
    b/ Keystrokes are totally stupid. Since when is Home - Arrow Key a standard windows keystroke.
    c/ Plus there is the usual office problems. It's refusal to use any Windows servoices (like menus, status bar, toolbars, file open dialogs, "

    Hmm. So something is only innovative if David Candy likes it?
  • I prefer the old 3.x .INI files to the behemoth that is the registry. If my XP install goes down the swanny and I need to reinstall it, I then have to reinstall all my applications; at least with 3.x all I had to do (for the most part, at least) was reinstall Windows and add the programs back to the groups. It may have been an "innovation", but it blows...

    "P2P filesharing like Kazaa or Gnutella don't count as innovative, because they are simply the Windows for Workgroups network browser extended to content and scaled up to the Internet..."

    Do what? My memories of WfW are a bit fuzzy now, but unless I'm more hugely mistaken than god it didn't allow you to copy a single file from multiple sources to improve bandwidth utilization, didn't support pausing and resuming downloads, and a whole lot of other stuff. That's somewhat akin to saying "Go is just noughts-and-crosses (aka tic-tac-toe) extended to a hexagonal board composed of triangles and scaled up to include different moves".

    In my time I've been a hardcore MSFT-hater, but in my old age I've mellowed and accept that they make some wonderful toys. However, I don't see that they're an innovator in the sense of, say, Google, Amazon, eBay, Napster, or countless others. MSFT's way seems to be either see someone else doing something cool and buying them out (or flat out stealing the idea then lying to the court about it if recent revelations are to be believed), or take an existing idea and (in the words of Homer Simpson) adding a clock to it.

  • "Another value stored there, PriorityQuantumMatrix, has an enticing name that implies the ability to fine-tune NT's scheduling algorithm, but the value actually stores encrypted NT beta and release candidate expiration dates"

    So basically it is an attempt at security by obscurity. "We don't want to mess with that value, it could screw up the scheduling algorithm".

    Isn't one of Longhorns features that the new registry is annotated so that in the configuration tools you get a description for each key using wcm:description, I think will help a lot provided someone gets round to annotating all the existing keys ;-)

  • Skywing,
    If only more people were as smart as you.
  • David, Yup, Bob was a shipping program.

    I know people who use it still (really).
  • Larry I have a question though, in your opinion can an application get too innovative?

    I use MS Word as an Example. MS Word I guess in my opinion hit it's peak in about 2000, Since then it has really gone down hill as far as usability. Yeah it has a lot of features but it is no so obtrusive and with all these features getting in your way I tend to avoid it anymore. I mean where do you stop adding things? I look at it like an artists painting, an artist can keep adding paint year after year after year but in reality what do you end up with? A big useless glob, where if he would have found a nice point to stop it would have been been a perfect work of art.

    Believe it or not now my prefered thing to type in is Outlook, start a new mail, Type it let it spell check and what ever, copy and paste out. I guess Word is just too feature rich now for me where it lost some of the practical value and all the features get in the way. While I understand some people may use these features and some may need them, I find myself constantly fighting with the UI trying to do things for me. Stopping clippy from popping up, now stopping the side bar popping up, trying to get email attachments to open up correctly, they for some reason go into a different view, tring like heck to get that dang clipboard things that is constantly following me around and popping up to go away.

    So for me anyway Word has become a big feature rich bloated app. So bloated I just try to avoid it like the plague. It reminds me kind of the early days of Yahoo, back in the begining it was easy to use feature rich and a great search engine. It kept adding feature after feature, soon it was just cumbersome to use, then along came google, back to simple easy to use does what you want it to do and nothing more. Could maybe the next innovation be an featurless Word?

    I know I can go turn things off in Word, I am a programmer but I find myself fighting word so long to turn things off, and help and clippy are no help when searching for Turn off Feature Name Here. And different features to turn off require you to go different places. For Example the clipboard that pops up all the time, pops up in all apps, one day using Front page to type up XML comments I finally got so pissed at the clipboard thing popping up in my way. I decided to embark on on the adventure of turning it off. 1 hour 30 minutes later of searching help and MS KB and then Google finally finding to turn the the clipboard thing off in front page I needed to go into word 2003 and the office options and some obscure tab 3 levels deep of buttons to un check a checkbox. Finally another feature in word turned off and front page as well. I guess my question is When do you stop working on an application? When are you done?
  • Larry, get the lawyers to release it as a free download. Maybe we in Australia can see a bad idea easier (or the supply chain wasn't as efficient and everyone knew it was a dog before it filled our supply chains). Though it didn't occur to me to get someone at North Ryde to smuggle a copy out for me.


    I understand what you said about Word. I've gone from using Word as my main spreadsheet, database (RegExp allow unlimited flexability in manipulating text databases), and DTP. Not to mention essays (Like how socialisation maintains and strengthen the class system - my first essay that I wrote at 29).

    I only use word to extract unicode and ansi strings from binary files these days. I have Word 97 installed in case I need to write (My Office 2000 disk was destroyed in a fire and I didn't realise I had copied it to hard drive) and Word XP for unknown reasons.

    The clipboard turns off if you cancel it three times in a row (now that's intuitive). But why is it supplanting the Windows clipboard at all.

    This prevents people using windows in a fashion they are used too.

    It is my belief that MS HAS inovated in UI design - first it was the move to Document Centric computing and I believe we are now in Task Centred computing (Media Player, My Pics, Help & Support, etc). But Office seems trapped in Application Centred computing (at it's extreme that people like me using Word for everything or an accountant using Lotus 123 as a word processor). MS don't seem to be very good at this. Office would make a fine Linux program as it fits in that environment, it does not fit into Windows.

    Whoever thought I don't want to read what I type is a .... A vertical bar is so stupid. And I can say I've not used it. I close the program down whenever I see it. Office 6/95 was the best version but 97 and 2000 were usuable and had some extra features that 6/95 didn't. But Word version 1 has 99% of the features of Word version 11, except for toolbars which were introduced in version 2.
  • Larry,

    I understand that your real point was not whether we all would welcome, endorse or approve of the things you called innovations, but that such things, invented by anyone, are rightly considered innovative.

    I disagree.

    If I said, "Seinfeld is an innovation in sit-coms," that would be wrong. Saying that about "It's Garry Shandling's Show" would be less wrong (there is more invention in that case) but still wrong. There is no show X that you can plug in in place of Seinfeld to make the statement right.

    If I said, "Inflation-indexing brackets was an innovation in income tax law," I'd be wrong again.

    The things MSFT have done to and are doing to Word are creative, but besides being completely unwanted by the real users, they are attempted refinements on a well-defined (and already optimized) item.

    I will grant you the bundling one. Not only were the Office parts sold together, they were sold for less than one of the parts. Daring. The technical aspect had been invented and was in the field already, you already could paste spreadsheet cell ranges into your word processor, starting with some version of DDE.
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