A couple months ago, I got asked by Microsoft to come out to a little event called Mix'n'mash. The goal of the event is to bring about 10-15 bloggers and "influentials" and see where Microsoft is going with a number of their products. More than that, it's a chance to provide feedback to Microsoft as to whether they're on track or if there's anything in particular they should be working on.
It turned out to be a very intimate affair with only nine of us making the event. Specifically, Kip Kniskern, Molly Holzschlag, Jesse Warden, Keith Peters, Kelly Goto, Erik Natzke, Julie Lerman, Rob Howard.
The day started off with two separate "tracks": developer and designer. Half the people checked out Visual Studio and the other half (including myself) checked out Expression Web and Expression Blend.
Expression Blend is for WPF and Silverlight development, which I don't have any experience with. The demos they provided really showed off the potential for some quick and lightweight development. Had I more interest in these technologies, Blend seemed like it would be a great solution.
A mixed afternoon
After a quick lunch and a quick podcast with some of the Microsoft evangelism team, it was time for the afternoon sessions.
We got a chance to check out Microsoft Surface, the multi-touch interactive table. Everybody was having a blast playing with this thing. I think we all saw a great deal of potential for a device like this, for homes, schools and business.
After that, I started getting a little tired and the presentations on FeedSync, PopFly and Microsoft's web analytics had me struggling to stay awake.
Talking with Bill Gates
The highlight of the day, however, was meeting Bill Gates at the end of the day. He entered and grabbed a seat at the conference table we were all sitting at. It was a little awkward with the room in a hush. After a quick round of introductons by everybody, Bill spent about 10 minutes talking about general Microsoft stuff. Then, each of us got to ask him a question or two.
When my turn came to ask him a question, things got interesting. I had originally intended to ask him about corporate culture but Rob Howard beat me to the punch. Instead, I decided to ask him about the culture of innovation (or the apparent lack thereof) within Microsoft. When he prompted for an example, I mentioned Word, recalling WordPerfect's dominance of the market.
I touched a nerve, apparently.
What followed was a very passionate response. It was absolutely hilarious to see him get so excited and everybody in attendance was enjoying it, including Bill Gates himself by the looks of things. Here is the transcript from my portion of the Q&A. Keep in mind that some of the dialog got missed, often due to the uproarious laughter.
Jonathan Snook: My question is more regarding (off mike). I've often felt that Microsoft has certainly been reactionary (off mike).
I believe my original question was, "My question is more regarding the culture of innovation within Microsoft. I've often felt that Microsoft has certainly been reactionary to the market." (Although it's been a couple days now and my memory isn't all that great to begin with!)
BILL GATES: Especially when we started the company. (Laughter.) I knew that three years later, Apple would come along. It was (just a reaction ?). (Laughter.)
Jonathan Snook: So, like, I mean, think of like Word (inaudible) or WordPerfect before (off mike).
Bill had asked for an example. The first thing that I thought of was Word. Which I thought came out after WordPerfect. (Which, from what limited research I did after the fact, is actually true but the discussion quickly went in another direction.)
BILL GATES: Oh, really? (Laughter.) When do you think Microsoft did its first word processor, just out of curiosity?
Jonathan Snook: Apparently it was before my time. (Laughter.)
BILL GATES: Way before WordPerfect, way before Bruce Bastian started school at BYU. Anyway --
Jonathan Snook: What year was that?
BILL GATES: The myth of all these things. We did 8080 word processors, 8080, eight-bit machine word processors. Every stupid thing we did first. (Laughter.)
PARTICIPANT: Let it be known.
BILL GATES: I mean, I'll date myself. Has anybody ever used a Model 100, Radio Shack Model 100? Okay, that was the first portable computer. It's a Z80 based system. It had this nice little word processor in it. You didn't have to give save commands. It had an eight-line LCD, 8 by 40 character LCD type thing.
Why does the IBM character set have all the characters it has in it? Because I put the Wang word processing characters in, because I thought, oh, maybe we'll do a Wang type word processor.
Who did Microsoft's word processor? Who? A guy named Charles Simone. Who is Charles Simone? Go back to the annals of Xerox PARC, and look at who wrote the first bitmap graphics word processor, a guy named Charles Simone, Dr. Charles Simone. Look at his PhD thesis on the thing.
Anyway, he started in 1980, after we'd done our first word processor. He came in because he believed in doing bitmap word processors. But anyway --
Jonathan Snook: Well, then let me rephrase my question.
BILL GATES: I mean, come on. (Laughter.) Do you guys remember Electric Pencil, do you remember WordStar? WordPerfect was late. We were early. The midrange is guys like Electric Pencil and WordStar. Now, we didn't win in word processing until people bet against graphics user interface, and we bet on graphics user interface, and people kind of messed up. There were even some good word processors, but they got messed up. What was that one on the Mac that was really good? FullWrite? FullWrite was actually a very good word processor, but they never took it anywhere. Anyway. But we were imitating them. (Laughter.)
Jonathan Snook: There's a myth that Microsoft doesn't innovate. How do you feel that Microsoft can change that attitude?
BILL GATES: We can't change it. If you think we just imitate, then that's -- you just can't change it.
Did we do personal computing? Who did that damn personal computing thing? When I bought that 8008 for $360 down at Hamilton (Avenue ?), what was that?
Anyway, tablet computers, is there somebody else out there doing tablet computers? IPTV, is there somebody else out there doing -- by definition what we do is the baseline. Everything Microsoft does is the baseline, and what we don't do, that's what's innovative I guess. (Laughter.) And by that definition the other guys do all the innovative things.
I remember Google invented Web search. No one did it before they did. It's very interesting how they did that. (Laughter.)
In the computer industry the person who does something first and the person who does it successfully, they are rarely the same, but the memory is -- I mean, people think Apple Computer was an early personal computer company. Well, let's see, I had licensed 17 people to do personal computer basics before I did the Applesoft BASIC, before I went out with Steve Wozniak and did the version that worked with a cassette tape, because they didn't have the disk yet. But Apple invented personal computing.
So, let history be rewritten at all times. But there's no way to get it straight, I guess. Go look at what Microsoft Research is doing, and then decide who are imitating and let me know.
Jonathan Snook: Well, I'm sure that (off mike) Microsoft Research (off mike).
BILL GATES: I'm sorry?
Jonathan Snook: The stuff coming out of Microsoft Research (off mike).
At this point, I wanted to balance the discussion by saying that Microsoft can and has innovated, including the work that Microsoft Research does.
BILL GATES: All our products are based -- all our products are based on stuff that came out of Microsoft Research. We are playing catch-up in Web search. What things are we behind in? Some design and usability things we could be better in, search we could be better in. So, we have categories where we need to match and exceed what a brilliant company has done. Adobe has done a great job with Flash, it's a very nice piece of work. Is it good that there's some competitor trying to make it better? Who knows? But, yes, they were the first mover in many elements of that. I can talk to you about people who failed who did it before them, but it doesn't really matter; they got out there and they drove the very big numbers.
So, we always have a few categories like that, but most of our revenue -- who's revolutionizing management software? Who's revolutionizing security software? I mean, seriously, who do you think? The business computing market, which is way bigger than the consumer computing market, no one pays attention to it. Even in the Wall Street Journal, and you think, oh, this is the paper they're going to tell me about business computing; no, it's all about consumer computing. It's okay, but thank God for business computing, because it allows us to price our consumer computing stuff super cheap, and still pay the salaries of these wonderful researchers who like to be paid.
Anyway, I'm -- (laughter.) It's not the first time I've heard that. I'm not -- (laughter) -- it's a very common view that if you figure out how I can get rid of it, I will do so.
My intention wasn't to say Microsoft doesn't innovate because I think they do but rather to open up the discussion to discuss ways that Microsoft could empower those within the organization to innovate (like Google does by allowing employees to work on their own projects).
Alas, it seems I put Gates on the defensive. In any case, it was a thoroughly enjoyable to hear him talk.
We finished the day with a group photo with Gates. After which, he made his way out of the building. It was somewhat surreal.
All in all, I enjoyed my time here at Microsoft. Everybody was very nice, especially Tim Harris from Microsoft who organized the event. I'd definitely enjoy doing this again next year. (Who'd say no to a free trip?)