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  • Microsoft’s Missed Opportunity

    By: treasurexm

    Windows Tablet

    Apple’s new tablet, the iPad, was introduced in January 2010. When it went on sale in April, it shot out of the gate, selling one million units in twenty-eight days. Jobs was not the only visionary to see the need for a tablet computer. Another famous entrepreneur, Bill Gates, had this to say: “The PC took computing out of the back office and into everyone’s office. The tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I’m already using a tablet as my everyday computer. It’s a PC that is virtually without limits—and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.”

    What’s noteworthy here is that Gates made that forecast not in 2010 but on November 11, 2001! What happened? “Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation,” claimed former Microsoft vice president Dick Brass. In a revealing opinion piece for the New York Times after Apple’s introduction of the iPad, Brass made the case that Microsoft actually thwarted innovation. “Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.”

    As an example, Brass said it took a decade for a technology called ClearType (a method to improve the readability of text on a computer screen) to find its way out of the labs and on to Windows. He said it annoyed other Microsoft groups that felt “threatened by our success.” As Brass tells it, he and his team were building the tablet PC in 2001, but the vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept. The VP refused to modify Office applications to work properly on the tablet, essentially dooming the project. The tablet group at Microsoft was eliminated. It’s a sad tale. Internecine warfare scuttled a project that had cost hundreds of millions to develop and could have positioned Microsoft as one of the world’s leading innovators in a new and exciting category of mobile computing.

    To confirm Brass’s argument, I checked with Tim Bajarin, a prominent analyst and Apple watcher. “The big difference is that everyone at Apple is on the same page, driven by Steve Jobs. That means every group and every project is in lockstep with Jobs’s vision,” Bajarin said. “Microsoft businesses are silos, and all of them are profit centres in their own right. In many cases, the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. The tablet is a good example. It needed to be part of a grand mobile vision driven by a single group championing the future of mobile. Instead, Microsoft has had different groups managing different aspects of mobile (Zune, Windows Mobile, Tablet, and so on). As a result, they missed a golden opportunity to drive a total Windows mobile version of the tablet and innovate around it.”

    The iPad story reinforces a key tenet of innovation: new ideas must fit into a broader vision articulated by a champion who keeps the organization focused on fulfilling the vision. Every organization, large and small, needs a “Steve Jobs”—a charismatic, visionary, and creative leader who has the influence to keep teams focused on the big picture.

    Gallo, Carmine (2010).

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