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Is Microsoft's Generation Gap Killing Its Creativity?

While competitors like Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) are cranking out revolutionary (if disputed) personal computing products, Microsoft's (MSFT) flagship, the Windows OS, appears stodgier every year. But the company's dedicated devices -- Xbox Live, the Zune media player -- verge on brilliant. What's with the disparity, and what will it mean for Redmond?

That's the question posed by former Microsoft VP Dick Brass in a February 4th New York Times editorial. Brass is mostly a Redmond apologist: "at worst," he says, Microsoft is a "highly repentant, largely accidental monopolist." But he acknowledges that something is amok with the state of innovation in this, the technology company with perhaps the largest global footprint of any.

Of course, many of us have been asking this question for nearly a decade, but the roaring mobile sector is bringing Microsoft's handicaps into ever-starker relief. Windows Phone (above), which we're assured by the tech blogs will be decent enough, is about two years too late. In the tech sector, two years is an eon; in 2008, remember, few of us had any idea what an "app" was. Now there are 140,000 of them floating around on 50 or 60 million iPhone OS devices worldwide.

The reason we should be concerned with Microsoft now, more than ever, is that its competitors are exhibiting a shocking amount of dexterity. It took Apple a long, long time to develop the iPod, iPhone and Mac OS X lineages. Now it's free to sit back and flex the power and potential of these products -- most of which, several developers have assured me, is still mostly untapped.

Facebook and Google (GOOG) are getting ever more agile, too. Google, for its part, spent much of the last few years buried deep in the backend of Google Apps, personalized search, hyperlocal databasing (i.e., Street View in Google Maps) and Android. Now it's reaping the benefits. As I said back in November, YouTube is a great example of this product maturation. As one Google rep put it to me then: "For several months, if not years, the goal was simply: build the site. Increase traffic. We got all those pieces in place a while ago. Now that we're optimizing those products, you're seeing the fruits of them become a much more comprehensive platform."

Facebook has also been eating its vegetables; the company spent the last few years asking half a billion of us to expand our notions of "privacy" to eventually allow them to publish a "News Feed" about each of our lives. The result, says Mark Zuckerberg, is that online "privacy" as we know it has changed. "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds," Zuck said to Michael Arrington in January, "but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time." Now Facebook makes your information public by default. Just a few months ago, the site defaulted to "private."

How does this relate to Windows? It doesn't. That's the problem. Other companies are deeply interested in keeping up with interaction and visual design. They believe that digital media, mapping, and apps are meant to be used by everybody. The iPad, as blogger Riccardo Mori rightly observes, is not the harbinger of this new mode, but it's symptomatic. By eliminating the "complications of the interface and of crystallised abstract concepts (files, folders, directories)," Mori argues, "you can create a more user-friendly experience, and lower the learning curve." And that's the kind of experience that most people in this world -- read: non-tech people -- need.

Something facet of Microsoft's corporate culture holds true that computers are meant to be complicated, and that if you can't figure them out, you're a little bit of an idiot. Not that they'd deign to admit that; their Windows 7 marketing would have you believe that price is the most important factor in computer-buying, and that "usability" is a metric that's incumbent upon you, not them. By including a couple of isolated, intuitive features like HomeGroup and Windows Media Center (above), Windows engineers seem to be hoping that we, the users, will ignore that most of the rest of the interaction design in this OS is vestigial, abortive, messy, redundant and stocked with jargon. This is their generation gap; it's not an age thing. It's an attitude.

Developer Frasier Speirs calls it "future shock." In a January 29th blog post, he captures Microsoft's antiquated attitude thusly:

The tech industry will be in paroxysms of future shock for some time to come. Many will cling to their January-26th notions of what it takes to get "real work" done; cling to the idea that the computer-based part of it is the "real work".

It's not. The Real Work is not formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS.

The Real Work is teaching the child, healing the patient, selling the house, logging the road defects, fixing the car at the roadside, capturing the table's order, designing the house and organising the party.

Redmond should know better; they employ some very astute social scientists who apparently study this stuff. But the environment of petty competition that Brass says has come to dominate Microsoft pushes out innovative engineers and stifles good ideas. Smaller teams -- Xbox, Zune -- get by with innovation, but bigger projects -- Windows, Office -- are hamstrung by the shortsighted ambitions of a bloated middle-management. Meanwhile, the rest of the industry is in a whirlwind of iteration. To quote Speirs, who also implicates Photoshop-maker Adobe (ADBE): "In the meantime, Adobe and Microsoft will continue to stamp their feet and whine."
Microsoft offered a rather reductive rebuttal to Brass's NYT editorial on their official corporate blog; read it, if you must, here.