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Has Microsoft Ever Really Innovated?

That’s a question worth asking, with a history of litigation winning out over innovation

An interesting question in a 2010 discussion thread at Quora is “Why has Microsoft seemingly stopped innovating?” A deeper question is “Has Microsoft ever innovated?”

Microsoft’s Bill Gates should be celebrated as a gifted and highly competitive entrepreneur and businessman. But his background as a computer scientist and student of algorithmic information theory is questionable. For this reason, Bill Gates’ assessment of the future of AI should be questioned.

Undergraduate Gates dropped out of Harvard University to pursue the founding of Microsoft. He was a knowledgeable programmer with early computer hardware but his more significant talents as an entrepreneur did not require deep studies in computer science. Much of his success came from his business instincts and his team of lawyers. Gates’s father was a named partner in the Seattle law firm of Preston Gates & Ellis so law was in the Gates’s blood.

When I consulted for Microsoft, I first met with Microsoft lawyers who told me my legal responsibility in no uncertain terms. As expected, I was told that Microsoft would own 100% of any intellectual property I created. I was also instructed not to look at any patents associated with my assigned duty.

This requirement was new to me. If Microsoft was sued in relation to my work and lost, I was told punitive damages could kick in if I had looked at patents. I might be construed as plagiarizing intellectual property. If I didn’t look at patents, the courts would that rule my contribution was a coincidental discovery and the plaintiff could recover only monetary damages.

In my experience, consulting typically requires the signing of documents like non-disclosure agreements and specifying who owns what intellectual property. But Microsoft is my only consulting experience that started with a nose-to-nose meeting with a prickle of lawyers. (Like a group of porcupines, lawyers come in prickles.)

Microsoft’s first historical coup was the acquisition of MS-DOS (Disc Operating System). Microsoft did not write DOS. It was purchased by Microsoft in the early 80’s. Because of the rise in popularity of the IBM PC, MS-DOS became a cash cow for Microsoft.

Microsoft continued to expand but not by innovation. Rather, it was by acquisition, copying other technology, and court battles. Here’s a partial list.

  • Microsoft Word was released late in 1983. It was preceded by Satellite Software International’s WordPerfect, released in 1980 as SSI-WP. The IBM PC version of WordPerfect was released in late 1982, one year prior to Microsoft’s release of the similar MS Word.
  • Microsoft PowerPoint was purchased from Forethought, Inc. in 1987 for $14 million dollars.
  • Microsoft swiped intellectual property for their web browser, Internet Explorer, and survived a lawsuit by their innovative victim Netscape. Netscape was a pioneer in web browsing software and dominated web browsers before the introduction of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Microsoft won over Netscape in court and was allowed to continue while the stock in innovative Netscape plunged over 90%: a victory for Microsoft lawyers.

Today, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is joked to be the best web browser for downloading better web browsers like Firefox and Google Chrome. Once boasting a 95% market share, the use of Explorer has plunged because of its low quality in comparison with its competitors. Microsoft has raised a white flag of defeat and has confirmed it will be ending support for Internet Explorer on August 17, 2021.

  • Spreadsheets were pioneered by Lotus 1-2-3 in the early 1980s. They are gone and Microsoft’s Excel now dominates the market. At least for now.
  • According to Apple, Microsoft’s initial Windows operating system was an encroachment on Apple’s system. Apple sued Microsoft and, after big bucks were wasted on legal fees, lost. Another notch in the gun for the prickle of Microsoft lawyers.
  • The first generation of Microsoft’s X-Box was released in late 2001. Microsoft was inspired by the earlier launchings of Atari (1977), Nintendo (1985), and the Sony Playstation (1994).
  • Bing, introduced in 2009, was Microsoft’s limp answer to the dominant Google search engine that made its appearance over a decade earlier in 1997. Bing immediately developed a reputation for mediocrity. Currently, a Bing search for Robert J. Marks, your author, has a picture of me next to the biography of an Air Force Brigadier General also named Robert J. Marks. I currently use DuckDuckGo for a search engine.

Windows and its core Office suite software are a cash cow for Microsoft. Both have been polished over the years. I use the Windows 10 operating system and am writing this article using Microsoft Word. Because this is the system supported my employer, I have no choice. Microsoft leverages its current market dominance well. Much of Microsoft’s software polishing came from users because its products were often rushed to market prior to vetting. The live demo of Window’s 98 plug-and-play is an embarrassing illustration:

The blue screen of death (August 15, 2008)—“That must why we’re not shipping Windows 98 yet.”

He’s onto something. Oxymorons are word pairs that appear to contradict each other, like “jumbo shrimp,” “only choice,” “deafening silence,” and “growing smaller.” An early version of Microsoft software, named “Microsoft Works,” became a popular joke as a classic oxymoron.

The perception of earlier versions of the Windows VISTA and follow-on Windows 7 operating systems is hilariously depicted in an XKCD cartoon:

Today, Microsoft is criticized for spending too much effort looking in its rear-view mirror. Hussein Kanji, a former Microsoft employee, has said, “It is uniquely difficult at Microsoft to do something new and intentionally ignore its heritage.” (January 22, 2011). With competition from Google and others, this sounds like disaster for the future of Microsoft as its legacy software, updated or not, loses favor to more innovative competition like free cloud-based Google Docs and Google Sheets.

Will Microsoft innovate technology that can bring new life into the company? Microsoft’s history shouts a loud “NO!”.

Maybe, though, it can buy some.

You may also enjoy: Should AI hold patents? The flash-of-genius answer To understand why AI cannot independently invent, let’s look at how famous inventors have actually done it.

Robert J. Marks II

Director, Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Besides serving as Director, Robert J. Marks Ph.D. hosts the Mind Matters podcast for the Bradley Center. He is Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University. Marks is a Fellow of both the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and the Optical Society of America. He was Charter President of the IEEE Neural Networks Council and served as Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks. He is coauthor of the books Neural Smithing: Supervised Learning in Feedforward Artificial Neural Networks (MIT Press) and Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics (World Scientific). For more information, see Dr. Marks’s expanded bio.

Has Microsoft Ever Really Innovated?