Not all innovation needs to be disruptive

 You might applaud this recent op-ed article by former Microsoft executive Dick Brass, grumbling how his ex-employer can't innovate the way that Apple does, as evidenced by the recent iPad announcement. Or, you might dismiss it as sour grapes from a disgruntled ex-employee. Both reactions are probably wrong.

Brass' op-ed completely misses a basic point about innovation: not every company does it the same way. Apple is certainly the poster child for disruptive innovation. Tom Bodett's reaction to the iPad announcement is a good illustration: at first, he thought,  "Is that all it is?" and then immediately decided that he had to have one.

With Microsoft, you know exactly what you're getting. Changes may be incremental, but their progress in the market is usually as inevitable as an advancing glacier. As Frank Shaw, Microsoft's VP of Corporate Communications, said, "For Microsoft, it is not sufficient to simply have a good idea, or a great idea, or even a cool idea. We measure our work by its broad impact."

Still, Microsoft isnt perfect. Their acquisition of NCompass was predicated on the idea that a web content management system could be positioned the same way as other back office products. The higher services requirement, not to mention the original pricing model, didn't fit the Microsoft business model as neatly as other attempts to expand their business through new capabilities.

Fortunately for Microsoft, the investment in NCompass wasn't back-breaking, and most people overlooked the blip in their product strategy. When Microsoft's failed innovation attempts are more visible — as they're likely to be with consumer products — the effects might be more dire.

The XBox is the exception that defines the rule. Microsoft made a massive investment in a market where, even if they didn't reach the maximal goal of putting the XBox at the heart of home entertainment systems, it put Microsoft into a lucrative market that was ripe for a new, alternative platform with foreward-seeing ideas like XBox Live. Microsoft won't make a similar massive investment in a new venture unless it's really, reall compelling.

Which is exactly why Brass' complaints about the fate of ClearType sound unconvincing. It doesn't matter whether the inventors were "very clever graphics experts,"  or the project presaged what Apple has done with the iPad. Not every idea is necessarily good, and not every company is the right vehicle for even the best ideas. ClearType may have been an amazing technology, but Microsoft may not have been the right company to bring it to market.

Often, Microsoft inspires fear of the inevitable Microsoft juggernaut crushing everything in its path. That's a myth: Hotmail didn't crush other vendors' webmail offerings. SharePoint took years to reach the right formula to accelerate adoption, and it still hasn't feasted on the still-beating hearts of every competitor.  Not everything they do is successful, but the succeed more often than they fail.

Brass has a very small perspective on his former employer's product lines if he thinks that the operating system and Office are the only successes. Here's another example: Microsoft continues to maintain a strong following among software developers, most obviously with its widely-adopted developer tools. We may not live in a .NET world, but .NET co-exists with Java and other development platforms in many organizations.

It takes a long time for myths to die. The myth that the only real innovation is the disruptive kind is slowly fading, particularly in the period between the dot-com bust and the current recession. There's nothing like bad economic realities to give you an appreciation of the assets you used to take for granted—such as successful forms of innovation that don't inspire people to jump out of their bathtubs shouting "Eureka!"

FYI, for a great look into the successful innovations that will help tech companies out of the recession, see this document by colleague Mike Gilpin.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]

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