"Microsoft was never known for innovation?"

On July 24, 2009, Roy Schestowitz published a blog article with the title "Patents Roundup: Why Microsoft's Patents are Useless; More Patent Failure News."

Schestowitz wrote:

Microsoft was never known for innovation, no matter how much it repeated the word "innovation". Since its early days, Microsoft's modus operandi was to "copy the product that others innovate, put them into Windows so they can't be unplugged, and then give it away for free," to quote Oracle's chief, Larry Ellison.

Microsoft is known to have copied Lotus (see antitrust exhibits which shows that they systematically do this with other products too) and then patented this copying of features. That too is just so typical when it comes to Microsoft.

If you buy into the analogy that invention is to the patent system as innovation is to the marketplace, then I'm sure that you'll be able to pick apart Schestowitz's arguments in a second. It's easy to see the muddling of issues by Schestowitz—that is, copying and repackaging, which relates to innovations, versus patenting, which relates to inventions. The idea that Microsoft's patents are useless because Microsoft does not innovate makes little sense in view of the logic that the marketplace is the domain of innovations, whereas the patent system is the domain of inventions.

Schestowitz would have done better to have made two separate charges against Microsoft: a first charge that Microsoft is not known for inventing and a second charge that Microsoft is not known for innovation.  If Microsoft doesn’t invent, then of course Microsoft’s patents would be useless because they would have been directed to inventions that are not new or are obvious or are useless.  But, to make the first charge, Schestowitz would have had to provide credible evidence, such as a detailed analysis of a broad spectrum of Microsoft patents showing that the subject matter claimed in those patents are not new or are obvious or are useless. Whether Microsoft innovates or not is not a patent matter.  But if Schestowitz wished to make the second charge, he would also have had to provide credible evidence in support of the charge. In any case, the second charge cannot be credibly made, as I’ll explain further.

From memory, I can easily recount the various Microsoft operating systems I’ve used. I can remember the days of the MS-DOS system. What a nightmare it was then trying to write a Fortran program on MS-DOS.  Towards the tail end of my undergraduate program, Microsoft introduced Windows 3.1 into the marketplace. It was better than MS-DOS, but still very clumsy, particularly in comparison to the more elegant UNIX-based (Solaris) Sun workstations I used at the engineering research center. Towards the tail end of my graduate program, Microsoft released Windows 95 into the marketplace. It was usable but no match for the UNIX-based (IRIX) Silicon Graphics machines I used at the MIT labs—I remember not wanting to graduate from MIT because of the Silicon Graphics machines. Later, Microsoft released Windows 98, then Windows ME, then Windows 2000.  By the time Microsoft released Windows XP, my desire to save and buy a Silicon Graphics machine had virtually evaporated (I am by no means insinuating that Windows XP is equivalent to IRIX). Now, I’m on Microsoft Vista and curious about the soon-to-be-released Windows 7.

The point of this recounting is to show that to my knowledge, over a span of 20 years, Microsoft has introduced 8 different flavors of its Windows system into the marketplace, that Microsoft is on the verge of introducing a 9th flavor of its Windows system into the marketplace, and that each latter flavor has been an improvement over, or at least has been different from, the former flavor.

If innovation is defined as something new or introduced differently into the marketplace, then the only possible conclusion based on the evidence in the marketplace is that Microsoft is right in repeating often and loudly that it innovates. Even if all Microsoft does is reengineer products by others and then introduce the reengineered products into the marketplace, Microsoft would be right in saying that it innovates. But chances are that Microsoft does much more—as noted by commentator threesixty on, “Everyone has ideas, ‘execution’ is the real bitch.”