Now this is something you don’t read every day. Dick Brass, vice president at Microsoft from 1997 to 2004, has written an article for The New York Times’ Op-Ed section, detailing the flaws in Microsoft’s corporate culture, and how they’ve severely affected the company in a negative way. Telling, and painful. And, in a way, very sad. Update: Microsoft responds. “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.”
Despite the massive profits Microsoft enjoys, the company is failing, Brass argues. “Microsoft has become a clumsy, uncompetitive innovator,” Brass writes, “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?”
Microsoft just concluded a massively successful quarter, but all of it comes from Windows and Office, the old mainstays of the Redmond giant, developed decades ago. Brass likens it to GM and their reliance on trucks and SUVs, and “Microsoft can’t count on these venerable products to sustain it forever”.
He thinks it’s because Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation; in fact, the company has developed a system that hinders innovation. Brass states that despite the massive budgets, best corporate laboratories in the world, and its three CTOs, Redmond somehow manages to “frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers”.
The two examples Brass details are telling. The first one deals with ClearType, the technology employed by Microsoft in Windows to make fonts easier to read on liquid crystal displays; originally, it was developed to help sell e-books, but it also happened to give Microsoft a potential advantage for devices with flat panels. “But it also annoyed other Microsoft groups that felt threatened by our success,” Brass reminisces.
“Engineers in the Windows group falsely claimed it made the display go haywire when certain colors were used,” he goes on, “The head of Office products said it was fuzzy and gave him headaches. The vice president for pocket devices was blunter: he’d support ClearType and use it, but only if I transferred the program and the programmers to his control. As a result, even though it received much public praise, internal promotion and patents, a decade passed before a fully operational version of ClearType finally made it into Windows.”
Even more painful is his example regarding tablet PCs, the program he headed ten years ago. “When we were building the tablet PC in 2001, the vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept,” he recalls, “The tablet required a stylus, and he much preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts doomed. To guarantee they were, he refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet. So if you wanted to enter a number into a spreadsheet or correct a word in an e-mail message, you had to write it in a special pop-up box, which then transferred the information to Office. Annoying, clumsy and slow.”
To this day, Office still doesn’t work properly on tablet PCs. So, despite the massive amounts of money the company poured into the tablet PC concept, it failed massively. In essence, Microsoft allowed the project to be sabotaged, Brass claims.
Besides internal rivalry and jealousy, Brass points to another problem within Microsoft: the preference to develop software (“highly profitable”) without developing hardware (“highly risky”). “This made economic sense when the company was founded in 1975, but now makes it far more difficult to create tightly integrated, beautifully designed products like an iPhone or TiVo,” he argues, “And, yes, part of the problem has been an understandable caution in the wake of the antitrust settlement. Timing has also been poor – too soon on Web TV, too late on iPods.”
The final words are harsh – very harsh. “At Microsoft, it has created a dysfunctional corporate culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence,” he writes, “It’s not an accident that almost all the executives in charge of Microsoft’s music, e-books, phone, online, search and tablet efforts over the past decade have left.”
I do not find it inherently sad that Microsoft is failing. It’s a company, and as a result, I don’t give two flying monkeys about them. What I do find sad, however, is that all those bright minds working at the company, who probably have great ideas that could potentially change the world, never get a chance to fully shine because of this rotten corporate culture.
The only bit of good news in that regard that I can find here is that Brass left the company in 2004, so maybe things have changed since then, or are changing as we speak. Windows 7 and Office 2007 sure are great products, so who knows – maybe things are getting better.