On the Speed and Communication of Technological Innovation

RetroSight :: Charlie Owen :: Windows XP Media Center Edition Development – Thomas Hawk Wants To Know When, Not If (His Choice) Microsoft’s Charlie Owen spent some time responding to some of our recent back and forth posts regarding some of what I’ve felt are the weaknesses in the current Media Center product. Thanks Charlie.

In responding to my posts Charlie accurately boils much of my criticism down to a single point: “My points above most of all Charlie revolves not around the IF part of them being developed but the WHEN part of them being developed.”

Charlie proceeds to offer up some valid reasons why a company might now want to share the “when” part of their development process.

As far as I am concerned there are two issues at present that I see.

The first issue is I think Microsoft has been slow in the past to innovate in many areas. What I would like to see is a more nimble, sleek, fast Microsoft that quickly responds to trends in the marketplace and stays ahead of the curve in the digital landscape. Now perhaps this is not the role Microsoft has always played in the past. Although Microsoft has dominated many different technologies, and the lesson of Netscape is a good one to keep in mind, they have not always been on the forefront of innovation.

HDTV is an area where Microsoft should be ahead of the curve. It is more critical to owning the living room 10 years from now than I think they give it credit and I worry that Media Center is getting left behind. I believe it’s important to be early in the HDTV game and I’m not sure that Microsoft shares the same view. In the end they may be right. They have much greater access to market data and research than I do. I believe though that the power of owning the living room goes far beyond the ability to sell a copy of Media Center. I think it has tremendous future application. So I think this is important and I think that it is an area where Microsoft should be ahead of the curve even if it involves making unfavorable business sacrifices today.

“These changes are designed to align our Business Groups in a way that will enhance decision-making and speed of execution.” Although this quote by Ballmer is not an admission that Microsoft has been slow moving in the past this has been my opinion. While this quote is probably more directly pointed at Google and in response to the Longhorn/Vista ship dates, I’m hoping that this new emphasis by Ballmer on speed pours over to the Media Center team and increases the sense of urgency with the development of the Media Center product and HDTV specifically.

The second issue that Charlie addresses is the communication issue. The communication issue deals more with the all right you’re slow on this BUT at least it’s coming side of things. A lot of people, myself included, can be patient if they know that eventually something will be here and an approximate time frame. Charlie outlines five reasons why a company does not share information:

1. Disclosing information at the wrong time or with too many people can jeopardize intellectual property rights, leading to the inability to capitalize on innovation (and therefore underwrite further innovation).
2. Talking prematurely can incorrectly set expectations (i.e. ship dates).
3. Loose lips sink ships; Talking about a deal before the deal is done puts the deal at risk.
4. They don’t know (yet).
5. They know, but choose to wait (for marketing, intellectual property reasons, coordination with partners, bandwidth, etc.)

With regards to item number one, I would tend to agree. Intellectual property rights are significant and important. But on the other hand that’s what patents are for. I would think Microsoft and any company would be wise to patent things ahead of time to prevent this type of thing from being a threat in the communication process. For example, recently Microsoft submitted a patent application that, according to PVRWire, apparently will allow PVR users to be charged for skipping over ads. Microsoft routinely gets patents on all kinds of technologies and I’d suspect that there is already IP protection with regards to their HDTV plans. I’d also assume that this is not the reason why Microsoft is not telling us when we will have native HDTV content on Media Center.

Item number two is perhaps a more valid point and I think is perhaps the true most significant reason why Microsoft might not be as forthcoming as they might otherwise but I think it’s a poor excuse. Yes, talking prematurely can incorrectly set expectations. Perhaps this is the lesson to take from Longhorn/Vista as Microsoft has been criticized for the ship date around this product. BUT… talking prematurely can sometimes put pressure on a company to ship which I personally find exciting. The whole point here from the Ballmer quote is to speed up innovation. So let’s put a little pressure on ourselves. Yes, let’s say we are going to do something, then do it. There are lots of reasons why ship dates get pushed back — some of which are quite valid — but I think pressure to change and innovate is a good thing. Like all goal setting having a public time frame is more powerful than a private time frame.

If I’m an athlete and decide that my goal is running a sub five minute mile, this goal is more powerful if I tell the whole world than if I keep it to myself. Now I know I’m oversimplifying a much more complicated issue here but I do believe that pressure is going to do more to speed things up than slow them down and I think this is in line with Ballmer’s direction.

Charlie’s point number three: “Loose lips sink ships.” Indeed. Deals undone could be jeopardized. So get the deals the done and get them done faster. Get the deals to a public point where you can talk about them. Why was TiVo/DirecTV able to put together a deal to offer a HDTV PVR solution over a year ago? Because they sacrificed things that were important. But they got the deal done. I know I’m comparing a closed system to an open system but obviously even an open system can be made closed which is the point of DRM and where we will hopefully eventually see HDTV on Media Center. The point is that TiVo was more nimble and got a deal done earlier. How ever they did it, they did it. If it really was important to Microsoft they could have done it too.

Point number four. They don’t know yet. Ouch. Unacceptable. Microsoft needs to be ahead of the digital curve. If there is something, anything, going on in digital media they need to fully understand and grasp it if they are to be the master of the living room. To be all knowing is indeed a monumental task, but you are Microsoft. You should be held to a higher standard.

Point number five. They know but they choose to wait for marketing, bandwidth, etc. Yes, another real reason why things are not communicated. Microsoft relies too much on marketing. Give the people what they want and then let the blogosphere and your happy users and excited consumers market for you. Marketing needs to step it up. Like every other area of the company they need to move faster. Microsoft is getting much better here but more improvement is needed. Leak, leak, leak, leak. Build buzz. I know Microsoft sees an early photo of their XBox on Engadget as a threat to their launch, but it is not. It builds buzz. Buzz is key. Microsoft is in fact beginning t
o learn this and I think you will see a better job of this in the future.

Charlie accurately represents two sides to the communication issue. 1. Sign a non disclosure and know or 2. Don’t sign a non disclosure and blog. I’d recommend a third option. Build relationships with bloggers like those of journalists over time and provide information on background and off the record. Having a journalism background myself I think this is a more appropriate in between solution. I have had companies share non public information with me in the past and it has remained undisclosed even while it is helpful in better understanding the product.

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