Microsoft exec "sabotaged" Tablet PC software development

ballmer.jpgMicrosoft is often unfairly criticized, says former vice president Dick Brass, but has a real problem creating new things that people care about. Despite having one of the best corporate labs in the world, internal factions thwart one anothers' attempts to develop new technologies, wrecking the company's ability to turn innovations into products. This is what happened when ClearType font anti-aliasing was developed:
Engineers in the Windows group falsely claimed it made the display go haywire when certain colors were used. 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.
I wonder who at Microsoft made sure Surface never got out the gates? Brass writes that the vice president in charge of Microsoft Office sabotaged the company's attempts to develop decent Tablet PCs, by refusing to develop versions of Office that could work properly on them: "To this day, you can't use Office directly on a Tablet PC." Imagine what would happen at Apple if whoever was in charge of iWork set out to suppress development of an iPad version because he didn't believe it was real computer. Microsoft's Creative Destruction [NYT]


  1. Dang Microsoft. Come on. Don’t let the Courier stay a as just a dream. I say Gates should just fire these people if they are hindering growth (and profits).

  2. Sometimes it’s good to have a couple hair trigger guys around. I can’t imagine that Ballmer would have any problem firing a jackass that was hindering progress like that, though. But it might never make it to him. (And if it did, your manager would surely fire you before he got fired…)

  3. I don’t own a tablet PC, but worked with someone who did. OneNote (part of MS Office) worked fine on his tablet in tablet mode.

  4. Ever hear the joke-

    “Where does the 800lb Gorilla sit?”

    “Wherever it wants.”

    Well, Microsoft is the 900lb Gorilla – on Viagra
    And it —-s whatever it wants.

    So silly, we used to have “Anti-Trust” laws that prevented companies from getting so big they could crush competition by blocking them from the market, rather than by using their money and brains to make a better products. We used to have the anti trust laws to prevent a company from gaining a market share that enabled them to dictate prices and not worry about the “Laws of supply and Demand” they love to claim is real when it suits their purposes.

  5. “Imagine what would happen at Apple if whoever was in charge of iWork set out to suppress development of an iPad version because he didn’t believe it was real computer.”

    I’m guessing that Steve would vaporize him with his eye lasers(which are powered by pure contempt).

    1. I imagined he chokes them with his mind like Darth Vader. I’m not sure about the lasers, but he must’ve had something implanted during his long hospital stays.

  6. I used to work for a company that did safety critical and high integrity software so we spent a lot of time doing things like automated formal proof and static code analysis.

    One day we had a presentation from guy at Microsoft Research who was woking on Spec# ( an analysable version of C#, which really blew me away with how brilliant and easy to use it was.

    Sadly, it was pretty clear that the amount of cool stuff that made it out of MS Research into the real world was pretty small.

    Microsoft Research is possibly one of the most tragic wastes of talent in the software industry at the moment. They are doing genuinely awesome stuff there, but so little of it seems to make it to the market and into the hands of us mere mortals :/

    1. Sure. It’s a honey pot. Attract brilliant people who might otherwise work for competitors, and give them cool projects which will never see the light of day.

      Fortunately, the REALLY brilliant people go elsewhere, and usually contribute to the open source community.

  7. Seems a little questionable here and there to me –

    1) XBox “at best an equal contender in the game console business” – sounds wrong to me. PS3 has been making advances lately but all I’ve ever heard since XBox360 came out was that it was beating the competition (and the casual-gamer-oriented Wii doesn’t really count as competition, for the record).

    2) ClearType by definition does do things to color. Look it up. I don’t know about making displays go “haywire”, but there are color issues. And personally I have heard many people over the years complain about ClearType’s fuzziness. Again, look it up. Plenty of info.

    3) I wasn’t there, but I can imagine a whole lot of reasons for an office program manager to resist porting to the TabletPC back in the day besides personal vendettas.

    One might as well ask how come M$ doesn’t innovate with their SmartPhones like Apple did with the iPhone? – a question that misses the point of M$’s approach with mobile devices – they never wanted to make hardware, only software. And Windows Mobile isn’t even an OS really – it’s a whole bunch of OS legos that hardware manufacturers pick and choose from and then use to build their own hardware-tailored versions of a mobile OS.

    Though generally this hasn’t yet proven to yield devices as neat as the iPhone, it is an approach that allowed for a lot of innovation in mobile devices during the 00’s. And personally I find it a little less evil than Apple’s ultra-closed systems approaches.

  8. When I’ve seen the preview videos for the Microsoft Courier device it looks really exciting – But then I have to stop myself getting excited about it as I’ve NEVER seen an exciting prototype that isn’t horribly compromised in production.
    Original Honda FCX concept – Elegant. Production Model – Boring.

    As Steve Jobs himself said – They snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

    1. I forget where I read it, probably Daring Fireball…
      Most tech companies demo prototypes, Apple demos products.

  9. I for some odd reason have a lot of faith in Microsoft. I’ve always suspected that, at the end of the day, the people at MS are actually ten times more brilliant than anyone at Apple; Apple just happens to have a brilliant leader. I’d love to see something like the Courier become a reality, because even in the basic rendering stages, it blows the iPad out of the water in terms of changing the possibilities of mobile computing. Apple would be crushed if the Courier was released and lived up to at least 75% of what the rendering showe. The worst part is, the tech in the Courier isn’t vapor that doesn’t exist. It’s there.

    Alas… MS has yet to learn how to light a fire under its own ass.

  10. Jobs would rip the manager’s still-beating heart from his chest, and scream SHANTI KALI-MAAAAAA! as it burst into flames before the assembled crowd.

  11. I’m generally not a fan of Microsoft, but this makes me sad. I can remember when Microsoft used to have a reputation for being a big company that had somehow managed to retain the energy and drive of a small company. I wonder when it went wrong.

  12. Hilarious. Astonishing how Microsoft’s software reflects their corporate culture, bloated, dysfunctional and a general sense of “we do things our way because we can’t be bothered to figure out how to do things properly”.

  13. Wow… talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. Sadly, coming from the bowels of some un-named corporation here, I can totally see how these things happen.

  14. The head of office products was right, ClearType is BlurryType.

    Some general remarks about Microsoft products:

    *The old version is compatible with everything.
    *The old version is faster.
    *The new version looks like a copy of something else.
    *The new version is slower.

    Microsoft’s real innovation is keeping something like Windows XP viable for so damn long. They just have to keep it simple and come out with a nice small update to that… OH WAIT VISTAFAIL

  15. Maybe this is why Xbox is a decent product. No infighting; everyone committed to producing something that’s functional, playable and good.

    If it didn’t have the MS logo on it, I wouldn’t believe the Xbox came from Redmond at all.

  16. If you read Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” and only believe half of what she says about microsoft’s culture, basically a big gulf between “haves” (full time) and “have-nots” (contract workers), it’s no surprise they have an f’ed up culture.

  17. The ZuneHD is a great product too. But you know what limits it? Every part of it that intersects with Windows Mobile stuff is gimped. It seems possible that the MIcrosoft mobile people detected a threat in the zune and have coralled it internally so that it’s never much more than a fancy MP3 player with a few token apps.

  18. So I just discovered the ClearType settings adjustment on this Win7 laptop. It asks a series of “which looks better to you?” and configures itself accordingly. Looks pretty sharp so far IMO, maybe they got it right.

    1. I, too, just discovered cleartype thanks to this thread, and it just fixed all of the problems I’d been noticing ever since I got this new monitor. I study print culture, so these issues are pretty critical for me.

      As for Microsoft’s culture of self defeat, it must stem from their workers spending all their time trying to find the most efficient path through campus.

  19. Right now, I’m working as a contract employee for a large financial institution (not my original field, obviously), and it seems to me that once a company passes a certain size, it becomes less about innovation and more about turf. I’ve already ruffled feathers here once (moral of the story; never, ever use the scientific method to show up a superior… or you will find yourself on the outside for a few months).
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big fan of M$ (I have to use a few of their products but avoid them if I can help it). But it seems that they have a real habit of orphaning really good ideas and botching others. After reading this… well… there you have it.

  20. And this is probably the reason I never got excited about Vista or 7. Where did the WinFS go? Or all the other exciting NEW features and would make it faster and better. Down the shitter and off the table apparently…

    I see MS’s problem as the status quo. They created it, and now they have to live by it. Look at windows, it’s bloated as all get out. And they don’t even know what half the code does at this point. (I’ve read they have a team working on figuring it all out and possibly making Windows more streamlined for the next release…I’ll believe that when Apple sells OSX by itself.)

  21. You can’t use Office on a tablet? Good.
    Who the heck would want to do any significant amount of typing on a touchpad anyways?

  22. I seem to remember hearing something similar at Apple between the Lisa division and the Macintosh division many years ago.

  23. …This kind of crap happens in the tech world all the time. M$ squashed an excellent markup language called “Chrome” that would have basically put the power of 3D Studio in your browser with the ease of Flash and about a third the overhead, all because some mid-level manager sabotaged the project because she couldn’t control it. IBM sat on the “Butterfly” notebook keyboard for over 15 years – it was originally designed as a portable word processor keyboard before the first surplus CB parts were used in the first PC prototypes – and in my own experience my proposal to Dell for what would have beaten TiVO to the PVR game by 4 years was sabotaged by Dell’s marketing division because they were scared the WiMPAAs and the MafRIAA would sue Dell out of business over Dell having invented a tool to facilitate piracy. The key to preventing this is to not only fire any manager who pulls this stunt, but suing them for damages and making sure that their wages are garnished for the rest of their lives.

  24. The Gates family made its money in the law long before Microsoft was created, and Microsoft is a company run by lawyers. Their technological decisions don’t make sense because they’re not really relevant to the bottom line. The crap they have now makes plenty of money.

  25. One thing not said yet: Microsoft never was about innovation.

    They are masters of monopolizing other people’s ideas.

  26. To illustrate the lackadaisical attitude they have towards what could be a huge seller if properly implemented and marketed:

    I’ve been using tablets since 2005 for college classes, and one of the greatest features of MS OneNote is the “Print to OneNote” feature which installs a driver that can take just about any page on your screen and instead of sending it to a printer, it sends it as basically, a scan, to an open page in OneNote. This is hugely useful when you have documents of different types, pics, or anything that a professor sends you through your school portal (Blackboard)

    Unfortunately, when they created Vista, they decided not to port the driver for the new OS, so as long as you had Vista, that feature no longer worked in OneNote. They actually admitted on the MSDN forums that “it would take too much work to port the driver”. Talk about shooting themselves in the foot. They replied when people complained about it, “It will be fixed in Office 2010”, yep, the version we’re just Beta testing now…

    They finally created a clunky but usable workaround for it, that frankly, any person without a fair amount of computer aptitude would have a difficult time implementing.

    This is the type of marketing prowess that has resulted in, since 2005, seeing next to zero tablet PC use in one of the venues that it should be superfluous. If Apple owns the tablet PC market for students in a year or so, MS will have no one to blame but themselves…

  27. Here’s a different point of view. Knowing Dick personally and having seen him in action, the article strikes me as self serving in the extreme. I read this as: “I am the good guy. I am seeing this happening and I am writing as an observer, having been part of that culture and having left it… My oh my, how tragic.”

    Right! He was part of it all, hell, he help create the culture he so heartily now decries. Did noting to change it, endorsed it while there, and now writes an article washing his hands off of all responsibility? As far as I am concerned he is part of the problem. But having seen his gasbagging in action, I have to say I am not surprised.

    1. Ahh! I didn’t even realize this person was a Vice President at MS. So if they don’t have the ability to address this, who on earth would? I think you’re right that they’re likely as much to blame as anyone else.

  28. I worked at Apple from 95 until 97, right before Jobs returned. Apple’s culture at the time is exactly what’s described about Microsoft’s, though it extended down to individual engineers. Ever wonder what happened to CHRP (Common Hardware Reference Platform), the PPC wonder box that was going to run AIX, Mac OS, etc? Individual engineers inside of Apple managed to kill it by dragging their feet and making sure that Mac OS wouldn’t run on it. There were numerous other stories. The QuickTime group was notorious for being prima donnas.

    So, pre-Jobs having the iWork group refuse to develop for the iPad would have been business as usual.

  29. VagabondAstronomer said it:

    it seems to me that once a company passes a certain size, it becomes less about innovation and more about turf.

    It can happen at smaller companies also- it just depends on how clueless the management is.

  30. read Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” and only believe half of what she says about microsoft’s culture, basically a big gulf between “haves” (full time) and “have-nots” (contract workers)

    I used to work for — oops, I mean work at Apple, as a contractor, through an agency, and this describes how things worked at Apple at the time. I have no reason to believe anything has changed. The whole technology industry works like that.

  31. Given the time frame mentioned in the editorial, it should be pretty easy to identify who the person was who supposedly made this fateful decision. I wonder if his person will tell their side of the story and if it will match up.

  32. Factional assassination happens everywhere. All you need is one bastard on board who will play any game to get a fraction more power… I’ve seen it firsthand, companies losing entire necessary projects and divisions so that the one bastard can score his point.
    Bitter? Moi?

  33. There are hundreds of managers and directors (and paid like real managers and directors) with no direct reports working at Microsoft. That’s all you need to know what kind of company it is.

  34. MS Research exists for the same reason as the GM tech center: Hire talent, to keep it away from your competitors and out of your products (where it might drive up production costs). With any luck, the US govt won’t prop up the former when it finally implodes for the same reasons as the latter.

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