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Microsoft and Creativity

I frequently read condemnations of Microsoft. It would be futile to put myself in the position of the Simpson prosecution, lending credibility to fantasies by treating them seriously. But some accusations have a surface plausibility, particularly to readers not versed in the details of the computer industry, and are repeated with such frequency and challenged so rarely that an innocent person might think they are true. One of these myths is: “Microsoft is not creative.” I’ve heard this a million times over the last 20 years.

The accuser generally cites something that Microsoft is successfully selling, and then points out that there are important aspects of this something that somebody had invented earlier. For example, Microsoft’s first product, “BASIC,” was an interpreter for the BASIC notation invented by Dartmouth professors John Kemmeny and Thomas Kurtz in the mid ’60s.

Later, Microsoft licensed the MS-DOS operating system to IBM and others — but did not invent the idea of a “operating system” nor did Bill Gates write the program. He bought it from someone else. Still later, Microsoft made good money selling word processing programs and also spreadsheet programs — but did not invent the ideas of word processing or spreadsheet.

Microsoft Windows is probably the program most closely associated with Microsoft today, yet many of the key ideas in it, particularly the “bit- mapped” display and the use of a “mouse” were invented elsewhere.

But this is like pointing to Henry Ford and saying that he deserves no credit for creativity because he didn’t invent the idea of the car, the assembly line, the internal combustion engine, or the wheel.

If you look at the history of these ideas that Microsoft used so profitably, you might come to a very different conclusion.

Take Microsoft Windows. Many detractors like to complain that Apple had invented all these ideas in the Macintosh, but that Microsoft then somehow stifled the Macintosh, preventing the originators from reaping their just rewards.

Actually, Apple invented none of those. The key ideas were invented at a number of places, principally at MIT, at Xerox and at Stanford Research Institute. But these institutions, creative as they were at thinking up better ways to use computers, were miserable at turning those ideas into practical, economical products. Xerox botched it up time after time. Even their best products were delicate, frightfully expensive toys that did not sell well. Apple got it better. Steve Jobs visited Xerox, picked up on those ideas, and started two projects at Apple to commercialize them, resulting in the “Lisa” and the “Macintosh.” The Lisa was fancy, but was terribly expensive and had only a very few programs that would run on it. (Apple simply demanded that programmers throw away all their existing programs and start over.) The Macintosh was much cheaper. Though more expensive — and less powerful — than the average “IBM-compatible” computer that ran Microsoft MS-DOS, the Macintosh was also easier to use within the range of what it did, and it found a loyal audience, particularly among children, artists and academics. (The bulk of computer buyers, businesses, preferred to buy the less-expensive, more-powerful computers that ran Microsoft operating systems and other popular programs such as Lotus 1-2-3 and Ashton-Tate dBase II.)

At about the same time (1984), Microsoft introduced the first version of Microsoft Windows. It had similar goals to the Macintosh, but took a different business approach to achieving them.

First, Microsoft differentiated itself from Apple by licensing its software to many computer manufacturers. Apple charged high prices for its computers. By contrast, by encouraging many companies to make computers that ran Microsoft operating systems, Microsoft ensured that its software would run on widely-available, inexpensive computers. (Apple eventually tried this — abortively — about a decade later.)

Second, Microsoft wrote programs (such as compilers and the language Visual Basic) that helped other programmers write programs that ran on those inexpensive computers. Microsoft taught thousands of people how to program for Microsoft Windows. Microsoft spent more effort than Apple helping software developers to write programs that would be commercially successful. As a result, the Microsoft computers had many more useful programs available than did the Apple computers.

Third, Microsoft made sure that programs written for the earlier computers that ran the earlier operating system, MS-DOS, would still run on the later operating system, Windows, and at the same time made sure that Windows would run on the computers that businesses had already purchased.

So while Apple told businesses that to use the Macintosh they must first throw away all their existing computers and embrace a new religion, Microsoft told potential customers that they could buy Windows, inexpensively, and use it productivly on the computers they already had.

Microsoft’s investment in compatibility took time. Initially, Apple had the lead in the market of “commercializing the things that Xerox and SRI invented.” But eventually, Microsoft’s longer-term approach of lower prices, more choices and protecting people’s investment proved more valuable.

In this example, we see that ideas need more than to be thought up. They need a lot of follow-on work and creativity to be made into commercial successes. Microsoft is very good at creatively figuring out what essential technologies people need and how to build a fully-integrated business plan and product package to commercialize those technologies. They are better at handling the entire integration of a product, in all aspects of the business, over a long time span.

God did not write that inventing a good idea and stopping there is enough to deserve financial success. You need to follow through, turn the idea into a real business, earn your money by building the very best products, considering the fully-integrated picture of the immediate product, its support, its price, its infrastructure, its marketing, its financing, its future, and so forth, over a long time. That is what Microsoft is very creative at.

P.S. The best book I know of — maybe the only good one — on Microsoft is “The Microsoft Way” by Randall Stross. It will give you a good feel for what Microsoft is really like.

The author works for Microsoft, but would like to stress that the opinions in this essay are his, and not those of Microsoft Corporation.