Innovation (And Why Microsoft Doesn’t Get It)

Akio Morita said of innovation, “If you ask the public what they think they will need, you will always be behind in this world. You will never catch up unless you think one to 10 years in advance and create a market for the items you think the public will accept at that time.”

As an example of this, he tells a story of when Sony first introduced the Walkman and its salesmen went around to retailers to have the product placed in their stores, to no avail.  The retailers instead responded, “What would people want with a cassette recorder that can’t record?”

Of course, the retailers were right.   The Walkman was a tape recorder that couldn’t record.  But they also completely missed the point.  The Walkman wasn’t meant to be a cassette recorder.  It was a new way to experience music.

As Sony showed with the Walkman, innovation is not about making bigger, faster products.   It’s about seeing the world in ways others don’t, in paying attention to details that others don’t care to and  in designing  products that inspire and make you say “wow!”  In short, it’s about thoughtful, creative engineering.

And Microsoft doesn’t get it.

My favorite example of this is Microsoft Word, in which the default setting converts “(c)” automatically into ©.  Whenever I share this frustration with people, everyone responds in exactly the same way–“you know you can turn that off”–without realizing how preposterous that answer is.  There are perhaps 0.5% of the people in this world, concentrated in the advertising industry, who need a shortcut to ©.  If Microsoft exercised any common sense–or better yet, actually used their own products–they would realize that the default setting should be the reverse, to permit the people to create a shortcut rather than have the shortcut as the standard.

This is a minor annoyance, but precisely because it’s minor, it speaks volumes about the company whose philosophy is more is better.  Contrast Microsoft with Apple, which has, in a mere ten years, revolutionized the music player with its iPod, music retailer business with the iTunes Music Store, phones with the iPhone and tablets with the iPad.  The significance of these products is not so much in the impact that they have had on our lives, but in understanding that they have been so impactful so consistently in so many different industries because their philosophy to make products better by simplication is relevant–and needed–across all industries.

Consider, for example, the magnetic power cord that comes with every Apple notebook.   The power cord attaches tightly to the computer using a magnet, which pops off the moment someone trips on it and thereby preventing the notebook from being dragged with the cord.   I always thought this was rather advanced technology–magnets, after all, are incompatible with hard drives–but my technologically savvy friends have told me that the level of magneticism involved in this feature has little impact on hard drives.   The magnetic cord, then, is not a matter of technology, but rather of thought and creativity.  No one will buy a notebook based on whether it has a magnetic power cord, but I appreciate the care that went into it every day that I use my MacBook.  It’s these small things that adds up to what makes the iPod innovative and the Zune just more features.

To ask why Microsoft can’t be more like Apple is an exercise in futility because innovation and creativity, which drives innovation, is a matter of corporate culture.  The lack of creative thought infects the company, all the way to marketing.  A great illustration is this great video that imagines, rather accurately, what a Microsoft iPod packaging would have looked like.

Or take Microsoft’s game console, the product it unaffectionately named the XBox.  A label with two “x”s is fitting as an internal code name for a product still in production, not for a product that’s released to consumers.   Sony may have lost its luster, but it had enough sense to name its game console “PlayStation,” a catchy yet descriptive name that I love.   Apple understands the importance of product naming as well.  If you browse through their online store, you’ll notice that there is no product with a name like “iMac 6100.”  They distinguish their products by speeds and memories, but the product itself only has the brand name imprinted.  But it wasn’t always so.  My first Mac in 1994, during Apple’s dark ages, was called the “PowerMac 6100.”  One of the first thing Steve Jobs did when he returned to the company was to dump this unattractive practice.

My point isn’t that Apple is perfect.  God knows its recent mouse, the product they introduced to the world, has been God-awful.  Rather, my point is that Microsoft doesn’t try at all, and more fatally, doesn’t seem to know how.  The sins of Apple comes from being too clever by half (and sometimes more), but that’s better than not being clever at all.

P.S.  More than seven years ago, I wrote about this exact topic in the weekly business column I used to write for Boston College’s main student-run paper, The Heights.  Compare and contrast my discussion on innovation then and now by clicking here (and yes, some material is recycled).


3 Responses to “Innovation (And Why Microsoft Doesn’t Get It)”

  1. 1 Chris Schroeck April 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Often times getting little things right, like the power cord, can leave the consumer much more impressed with the product. Often the feeling that you have really “thought out” your product is almost more important than the quality. I will give you two examples to illustrate this point.

    1. Sara and I recently stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago, which is owned by Four Seasons. Not every Ritz-Carlton is, in fact I think most are owned by Mariott. Our room was nicely furnished, but not that much nicer than any other upscale hotel room, like a Hilton. What really impressed me were the little things. At many hotels, you will close the curtains if you plan to sleep in but there’s always a small sliver of light – you can never quite get them all the way closed. At this one, the curtains were set in the window so that they overlapped by a couple of feet. It would stay dark for as long as you wanted. Small thing, big effect. Little touches like this really made me feel like they cared about the consumer. There are a number of others that I could name.

    2. Have you ever been to Disney World? Disney is a company that thinks through every little detail for every event/attraction. From the little touches that make even waiting in line entertaining to the way that they can have parades in a crowded park – one minute it’s a normal thoroughfare, the next it’s roped off with floats coming through – it’s a masterpiece in planning. One year I was in Epcot Center for New Year’s Eve. It’s a family location so most times there’s not much alcohol around, but I swear, as soon as it got dark on New Year’s Eve, there were bars everywhere. They had just sprung up out of nowhere.

    Companies that care about the little things get ahead because it shows how much they care and their customers come back because they feel like the company cares about them.

    • 2 joesas April 12, 2011 at 11:13 pm


      Two great examples! With hotels in particular, I think the little things really add up to big differences in one night. It becomes obvious when you stay at two or three hotels…

      I think Disney is another example of a really creative company (that lost its way under Eisner but is now back with Pixar). Disneyworld, you’re right, is a perfect example. Did you know what unlike other theme parks, Disneyland only has one entrance? Walt Disney wanted to create an atmosphere where experienced the same thing, yet imagined different things. He wanted to foster people’s genuine creativity, without gimmicks. He “got” it in a way Eisner never did with “Snow White 2 – Direct to Video”…

  1. 1 The Legacy of Steve Jobs « The World According to Joe Trackback on October 6, 2011 at 11:48 am

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