Microsoft innovation -- an oxymoron

Saddling the latest version of your company's flagship product with a name that reminds old-timers like me of the Dodge Colt Vista or the even more ancient Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser? At Microsoft, that's what passes for innovation. In his opening speech at a recent Microsoft analysts meeting, CEO Steve Ballmer uttered the "i" word no less than 24 times.

Excuse me? Microsoft's history is largely about developing (or buying) and then aggressively marketing sometimes-improved variants of other people's ideas. As long as there's competition, Microsoft makes products that are just good enough or cheap enough to stifle it. Then it rests on its laurels and moves on to rework other ideas it didn't originate.

What's been revealed of Windows Vista is particularly sad. Defaulting to a mode that requires users to enter an administrative password before they can install programs? A security-enhancing idea, but one that's been around for ages in Apple's Mac OS X. Integrated search? Apple has it now. The Registry? There's no sign of that monstrosity in OS X, but it'll still be around in Windows Vista to drive users nuts. Copying the competition's good ideas and retaining a bad one that you actually did originate: That's innovation!

With Motorola's Q, there may be a Windows Mobile phone with a keyboard to challenge the BlackBerry and the Treo...sometime in 2006. Finally powering a BlackBerry knockoff: That's innovation!

DataViz's Documents To Go has long been able to round-trip Microsoft Office documents between a PC and a portable device without losing their formatting. So can the new version of Windows Mobile (or so I'm told), after years of Pocket PCs and Smartphones that mucked up Office docs badly. Eventually catching up with a third party's better idea: That's innovation!

And then there's the definition of chutzpah that will soon replace the kid who kills his parents and asks the court to have mercy because he's an orphan: The company that delivers insanely insecure software plans to charge users a subscription fee for a service designed to guard against the viruses and spyware that it welcomes in the door. That's...a protection racket!

When Microsoft does stumble onto something that might pass for innovation, it can't get it right. Tablet PCs still don't consistently do the one thing you might want them to: recognize your handwriting. Subscription-based music services based on Windows Media perform one task IPods can't -- namely, let you pay a low monthly fee for all the tunes you can eat and let you keep them and copy them to mobile players as long as you keep paying. Nice, but device makers and service providers don't support this technology reliably and universally.

Which brings us back to Microsoft's tone-deaf marketing. It delivers concepts such as music that "PlaysForSure" (except maybe not subscription stuff), ads that suggest you're a dinosaur unless you buy "today's Microsoft Office" (even though it has a "2003" in its name and its successor has been announced), and monikers as imaginative as your father's Oldsmobile -- oh, sorry: Vista.

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Stephen Manes

PC World
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