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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.


  • "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 agree, which is not to say that Office et al are not innovative products. They are amazingly innovative, in terms of adding value, but people only demand so much from a word processor before seeking other attributes besides functionality. For instance, price.

    One book, The Innovator's Dilemma summed up the phenomenon nicely, in terms of "disruptive innovations"--products with fewer features, somewhat different applications, and lower prices. These products eventually gain enough functionality to compete with the higher-end products by meeting minmum needs _and_ having a lower cost--partially because the companies that produce them, have cost structures that allow them to compete at the low-end.

    I think Microsoft ought to seriously consider spinning off an independent company and creating a "very low-end" office suite. Let it compete against Office itself, and develop into an application that meets the basic functionality needs of most users, at a lower price point.

    My feeling is that if Microsoft doesn't do this, eventually someone will. How many more upgrade cycles of Office can they realistically push on people?

    The last version of Office added two major features: a half-assed DRM client, and a half-assed collaboration system.

    Maybe customers say they want these things. They probably do. But do they want them as part of an office suite? Both DRM and collaboration are available elsewhere, certainly the latter in a more mature format. Would customers sacrifice DRM and collaboration (or get it from actual DRM/collaboration companies) to have a lower-cost office solution?

    Time will tell. But technical innovation is not the only game Microsoft should be playing with Office, these days.
  • "I think Microsoft ought to seriously consider spinning off an independent company and creating a "very low-end" office suite."

    Well there's already MS Works (although whether you could consider close to $100 to be "very low price"); if they could reduce the price a bit, make it more compatible with Office documents, and make it suck less, then they may be on to a winner.

    Failing that, if something like OpenOffice could get a bit more mainstream coverage MSFT may find their cash cow* becoming fit only for making cat-food. :) Sure, there's no database (or at least not in the same mould as Access), but a) Access doesn't come with the bog standard Office package, and b) most people prefer to use Excel as a database, so this is no great loss.

    * Office sales are, IIRC, slowing down, so the cash-cow may die without anyone's help. Heck, at work we use Office 97 because for most purposes it does exactly what we need, and the "benefits" of upgrading don't even come close to outweighing the costs. I'd hazard a guess that 99% of the people using Word mostly just create letters or fairly simple documents; the fancy collaboration features and god alone knows what else that have made OXP so unwieldy (IMHO) are just extra baggage along for the ride. Similarly, Excel for the most part is used as a database by people who don't know any better, or for producing whizzy graphs for their Powerpoint snooze-fests.

    [Got carried away again, sorry. For some reason I'm finding this topic hard to keep quiet about...]
  • Larry, I agree wholeheartedly with what you wrote (since I have written similar things before). The people who say they won't buy [a word processor|an operating system|a web browser|whatever] from Microsoft because Microsoft didn't invent it, seem to have no trouble buying a car, refrigerator, television, et. from a company that didn't invent those technologies. In fact they don't even use that test when buying software from other companies. Besides since when do you get brownie points for buying something from the company that invented it? So this seems like one of the basic anti-Microsoft attacks.

    I have to agree with Jeff Parker though. Word is a bloated piece of junk and I (and everyone I talk to about it) spends half our time fighting Word as it applies formatting directives seemingly at random. The old "paste to Notepad, then copy and paste to Word" is getting tiring.

    - adam
  • Adam Barr:
    Use 'Paste as special' and select normal text instead of going via notepad. That should do the same job.

    One nice feature of Office 2003 (or came it in Office XP?) is the Sharepoint integration. They should go one step further and use the MS SSC API to allow people to use version control on their documents. Guess feature requests for Office are very off-topic though :).

    To be more on topic I agree with Larry, BillG etc. that Microsoft is an innovative company :)
  • *Chuckles, sorry Larry, I really didn't intend for this to be a Word thing, I was only using word as an example. But well, Larry hopefully you can see the point of my question with all these replies, I mean really when is an artist finished with thier work when the art is a program, and when is it done, is it possable for some windows apps like word to reach Anchorage level while waiting on the rest to catch up. While Word is far from Anchorage, It has the features to be there just a lot of those features need fixed like save to html and so on, like save to html isn't html I don't know what that crap is but it isn't html. Great feature, just works like crap. When other companies sell apps like DOCTOHTML you would thing the Office team would get a clue. But they don't

    But I really respect Larry's ideas and thoughts, so I am wondering more to the point of What makes a good application, and when is it done. When is the artist done. I know this blog is the personal opinion of Larry and not that of MS, and well this blog post set off a lot of lightbulbs for me about this subject, of course later today Raymonds post which linked to the MS money post. Just started firing off the synapsys in the brain about this subject, funny how this happens sometimes. I know I can't be the first person with this thought, are there are books written as I have never seen them on really when is the application done? I mean look at notepad When was the last time the actual code base in the EXE for notepad was changed. But you know in XP my number 1 most recently used app has been notepad probably since day one. Yeah sure the components in wondows might have been updated but actually notepad itself, when was it ever updated. I know also there is something like a notepad2 or or something like that I just do not find it useful myself, Notepad reached its peak and it's intention and it's purpose. notepad2 on the other hand I just view as a different app, like word pad, word, treepad and several others that have tried to improve on notepad over the years. Yeah it has a lot of cool feature but you know I do not need those features.
  • Oh yeah and on a side note, did you ever think of MS ever reaches Anchorage will there be a note pad in it I am guessing that it will be?
  • 10/12/2004 10:47 PM Jeff Parker

    > Yeah sure the components in wondows might
    > have been updated but actually notepad
    > itself, when was it ever updated.

    Notepad has been updated more often than you think. Notepad used to be unable to display files larger than around 50KB. Foreign-language versions of Notepad used to be unable to display Japanese text -- even if Japanese fonts were installed into their Windows fonts directory. (Of course these updates aren't innovations, they're just updates.)
  • Most Western game publishers are slaves to marketing demands, trends and profits, but Japanese companies offer an amazing range and depth of software, all of which is unavailable in the West. Shelves are lined with dating simulations, music titles, bizarre puzzle games, train-driving simulations, robot fighters, fishing contests, horse racing titles, virtual pets and a dizzying number of role-playing games. And you have not lived until you've experienced a hamburger simulation - the assembly of a gastronomical delight to rival the McTeriyaki.

    Now this is inovation, a hamburger simulation. One wonders why there isn't a pizza and jolt simulation from MS. Or a Microserfs simulation (we get to play god with MS's programmers - moving liitle larrys around a campus, dispensing and withdrawing free milk). Or Age Of Browsers (Netscape vs Microsoft) with a Marc and a Bill as generals. Or a courtroom simulation - Advocate or defend an antitrust suit in the EU.
  • Point well taken David.

    A hamburger sim game. Mindboggling.
  • I think a MicroSnerf game would be fun. I could tell Larry were to go at work too ;-)

    I just wish we could get the Japanese stuff imported over here with some amount of regularity. Both manga and games would be nice. I think there is a market for it, but it's a real challenge trying to get some marketing suit to go for it. A few trinkets make it over, but usually the ones aimed at kids. Neopets and pokemon anyone? Somewhere along the line, we Americans seem to have forgotten how to have silly mindless fun without blowing people up. Actually, I don't think we Americans have forgotten, but the marketing suits who choose our entertainment seem to think we have.

    There's a delightful gameboy game that is essentially a farming sim "Harvest Moon". The only PC farming game is made by John Deere and serves as a marketing ploy to buy all their farming equipment. The gameboy game includes bars, fishing, mining, reproducing animals, etc. the PC game mostly lists chores to be done. Seems in our sim-happy culture that someone would make a reasonably fun farming sim.

    I guess I am still just a farmgirl at heart.

  • > I just wish we could get the Japanese stuff
    > imported over here with some amount of
    > regularity. Both manga and games would be
    > nice.

    Hmm. There's a software section on, and I think it includes games though I haven't looked for a while.

    Hmm again. Amazon has a software section and it does include games. Amazon doesn't ship software outside of Japan though. If you find anything you like, your husband has my e-mail address and I could re-mail stuff.

    One of the chains of 100-yen stores also has a series of games on CD for 105 yen each (used to be 100 yen each, but the new law requires retailers to include sales tax in posted prices).
  • The first GUI OS(I'll admit it's a little sparse on the graphics) that I'm aware of was demo'd ~36 years ago by Douglas Engelbart at SRI.
  • To The Wife - a fellow Apriciot user,

    I was thinkin of movin you around the campus too. I was thinkin tester for MS Bob and then a transfer to seeing how few applications will work on MSDos 3.3 for the Apriciot. Because that is what gods do, capricious and random acts.

  • But you know in XP my number 1 most recently used app has been notepad probably since day one -Jeff Parker

    Mine too, till I found a better one on sourceforge, nothing beats notepad for making quick and easy notes / memos / writing code, but notepad really does fall over on large files.

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