When one thinks of innovation in the PC industry, Microsoft isn't generally the first company that springs to mind. But Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer would like to change that perception. During an appearance at the 2005 Gartner Symposium/ITxpo yesterday in Orlando, Florida, the suddenly svelte Ballmer pushed the work is company is doing to become more innovative.
"The top priority for us is to be an innovative company," he said. "At the end of the day, we make all our money based upon our ability to innovate. If we don't innovate, we don't have new \[software product\] versions, nobody needs to upgrade, nobody needs to buy."
Ballmer was unusually frank about the problems Microsoft has had innovating in the past few years, and noted that it had melded its MSN division with the Windows division to jumpstart things. However, he repeatedly made an alarming connection between innovation and time to market. "We've gone through a period where, shall we say, we haven't had all the muscles working evenly," he noted. "Our MSN team has been pumping rapid innovation into the market ... Windows has had a longer gap between its major releases, with the exception, of course, of the major security release we did, XP SP 2. And I think the important thing we're focused in on across Microsoft is how, through the combination of both products and services on top of those products, Internet-based services, all of our major businesses can have a short twitch capability, call that every six or nine months ... We just can't make our customers wait three or four years for the things which should have been on more interim cycles. So, we're trying to pace ourselves ... so that we have innovations coming on all three of those cycle paths."
When asked for examples of innovation Microsoft was currently pursuing, Ballmer said that the next 12 months would be the most innovative in its history. He cited the work that Microsoft is doing on Windows Vista, Internet Explorer (IE) 7, Windows Server 2003 R2, SQL Server 2005, Visual Studio 2005, BizTalk Server 2006, Windows Mobile, Office 12, and Xbox 360 as examples. "We're in the middle of the best pipeline, frankly, that we've ever had as a company," he said. "And now the key is to make sure that for every line of business we have the things that pop every six or nine months, pop every couple of years, pop longer than that."
Of the products Ballmer noted, its unclear which of them are truly innovative, as compared to, say, evolutionary. The user interface work in Office 12 is arguably the most innovative work the company has done in years, for example, but I'd be hard pressed to laud the overdue security and functional changes in IE 7 as anything more than something the company should have done years ago.
Amazingly, Ballmer also discussed "the reset," a term that was first described here in WinInfo. This was when Microsoft discovered, about 18 months ago, that Windows Vista, as then envisioned, was technically unfeasible. Rather than simply give up, the company regrouped and came up with a plan to rearchitect the product. "We made a call that the integration challenges of trying to bring together a new operating system that had a new presentation service, file system, user interface, communication system, and to have all those things be co-dependent was not going to \[work\]," he said. "We also retooled our entire engineering system. We componentized the architecture of Windows to give it more flexibility for rapid release going forward. We've changed our build test systems to give us greater agility in the way we do development internally."