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Dick Brass tried to develop a tablet like the Kindle or iPad starting in 1997. However, his designs were ultimately undermined by a lack of creativity and in-fighting he says. Now he says those same problems are killing Microsoft slowly from the inside.  (Source: The Kincaid School)
Executive blames lack of creativity for the supposed problems at Microsoft, points to RIM, Apple, and Amazon as innovators

Windows 7 may be immensely popular, but not everyone is impressed with Microsoft's performance.  Just days after Microsoft took 10 percent of the market with Windows 7 in only 4 months -- a feat that took Windows Vista 16 months to accomplish -- a former Microsoft vice president, Dick Brass, delivered a scathing review on the company's lack of "creative spark" which he published in The New York Times.

He writes:

The company’s chief executive, Steve Ballmer, has continued to deliver huge profits. They totaled well over $100 billion in the past 10 years alone and help sustain the economies of Seattle, Washington State and the nation as a whole.... And yet it is failing, even as it reports record earnings. As the fellow who tried (and largely failed) to make tablet PCs and e-books happen at Microsoft a decade ago, I could say this is because the company placed too much faith in people like me. But the decline is so broad and so striking that it would be presumptuous of me to take responsibility for it.
Microsoft has become a clumsy, uncompetitive innovator. Its products are lampooned, often unfairly but sometimes with good reason. Its image has never recovered from the antitrust prosecution of the 1990s. Its marketing has been inept for years; remember the 2008 ad in which Bill Gates was somehow persuaded to literally wiggle his behind at the camera?

Mr. Brass was already a millionaire when he first came to work at Microsoft, hailing from Oracle Corp. and being one of the first investors in tremendously successful wireless company Omnipoint.  At Oracle, Mr. Brass had worked as a speech writer for the at times contentious chairman Lawrence Ellison.  Before that he had worked as a New York Daily News reporter.

At Microsoft -- between 1997 and 2004 – Mr. Brass led a team of almost 100 designers and tried to flesh out a tablet PC/electronic book reader device.  Ultimately Microsoft failed to advance in the arena and it wasn't until 2007 that a successful e-book reader hit the market (the Amazon Kindle); and now Apple is hoping that its iPad will being tablets to an even wider audience.

Mr. Brass touches on that device in the entry point of his op-ed entitled "Microsoft’s Creative Destruction".  In the beginning, he provokes, "As they marvel at Apple’s new iPad tablet computer, the technorati seem to be focusing on where this leaves Amazon’s popular e-book business. But the much more important question is why Microsoft, America’s most famous and prosperous technology company, no longer brings us the future, whether it’s tablet computers like the iPad, e-books like Amazon’s Kindle, smartphones like the BlackBerry and iPhone, search engines like Google, digital music systems like iPod and iTunes or popular Web services like Facebook and Twitter."

Maligning Microsoft, while building up Google, Amazon, RIM, and Apple seems like a tired old wheel, but Mr. Brass does hit on some of Microsoft biggest weaknesses.  He comments, "While Apple continues to gain market share in many products, Microsoft has lost share in Web browsers, high-end laptops and smartphones. Despite billions in investment, its Xbox line is still at best an equal contender in the game console business. It first ignored and then stumbled in personal music players until that business was locked up by Apple."

He says that much of Microsoft's problems have been the result of "internecine warfare" -- backstabbing between Microsoft's divisions.  He relates stories about how Microsoft group leaders blocked the adoption of ClearType and how his own tablet project was damaged when the head of the Office group refused to modify the software to work efficiently on tablet (because he "preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts doomed", writes Mr. Brass).

But he also says Microsoft is now so big that it becomes difficult to take the risks necessary to produce truly innovative hardware.

Amid the criticism, Mr. Brass also delivers praise for the company's accomplishments.  He writes "More than any other firm, it made using computers both ubiquitous and affordable" and "Its founder, Bill Gates, is not only the most generous philanthropist in history, but has also inspired thousands of his employees to give generously themselves. No one in his right mind should wish Microsoft failure."

The former VP insists that the iPad, iPhone, Blackberries, Kindles, and their ilk representative Microsoft's doom.  If Microsoft doesn't turn the ship around creatively, he concludes, its headed for a decline into mediocrity, shrinkage, and obscurity.  

Whether or not such claims are true, they certainly provoke an interesting discussion.  Mr. Brass does overlook some of Microsoft's recent innovations and successes -- the unprecedented beta test program for Windows 7.  And he tends to look at the glass half empty in some cases (Bing, Xbox 360).  And yet, despite these oversights, it's hard to dismiss entirely the concerns of someone with such deep knowledge of the company and who obviously still cares about it.





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