Does Microsoft innovate?

Has MS ever come up with an original product, or do they merely buy or copy other company’s successful products?


Obviously not a General Question, so off to Great Debates.


Well, what exactly are you asking? I’m assuming based on the short, incomplete OP you’re talking about an OS?

Forgive me if I’m projecting, but you haven’t given anything to go on other than speculation. I’ll assume you’re another rabid Mac fan looking for validation of your superiority. If not, apologies. Again, going on the lack of an idea in the OP.

If you’re talking about a computer’s OS, they’re as innovative as any OS in the last 40 years. Even Unix, Linux, COBOL, BASIC, etc are based on previous OS’s from the 40’s. But this may not be what you’re talking about.

As far as innovative? Yes. Without question. Whether a person likes Microsoft or not. They were the ones that brought personal computing to the masses. Say what you will, and I’m not going to offer pros or cons to anything. Microsoft was able to get computers to the general population, and they seem to have done it better than anyone else. I like my new Linux box (got the new one set up tonight!), but if it were as easy to use as Windows, I’d be much happier.

It’s fun to play with an open-source OS and experiment with it. It’s much more fun (well, hassle-free) to connect my printer and be able to, you know, print something.

COBOL and BASIC are programming languages, not operating systems.

Same thing at their base. Unless COBOL and BASIC have nothing to do with “telling” a system what to do.

I have to disagree, duffer. An operating system and a programming language are two very different things. An operating system may be created using a programming language, but we wouldn’t call a saw and a house the same thing even though one is used to build the other.

Anyway, as to the OP: Microsoft has undoubtedly innovated in some ways. These may or may not be interesting innovations to you, nor useful innovations for you. It might be useful if you specified what sorts of innovations you’re looking for. That is, what would “count” as an innovation to you.

For one thing, are you only asking about technological innovations? Because Microsoft was definitely innovative in marketing.

They are not the same thing. Programming languages are a general set of instructions for performing various tasks. However, until you write a program with that language it doesn’t do anything. Operating systems are a type of program that interfaces between the computer hardware and other programs.

Let me enhance this a little bit. I didn’t mean this to be a GD topic. What I was asking was not whether or not MS products are good, but whether they had invented any new class of product. For example, Xerox invented the GUI and Apple invented the PDA. All of MS’s products that I can think of are reactions to other companies inventions. I am not going to debate whether Windows is any good (FWIW, I think it’s OK), or whether they were responsible for the microcomputer revolution (although I think IBM really deserves the credit there). I just want to know if they ever invented a product for which no market previously existed.


Well, just off the top of my head, they invented .NET, they invented the XMLHttpRequest which is the foundation of AJAX applications, they invented the WMA and the WMV codecs, they’re made several games including Age of Empires, PowerShell (Monad) has a couple of fairly revolutionary innovations in it. Thats not even going into their core business of Windows + Office.

Theres also a whole lot of stuff coming out from Microsoft Research which generally does not make it into consumer products in any recognisable form but is undoubtably innovative.

The stuff you mention are Microsoft’s offerings in existing markets, with the possible exception of XmlHttpRequest, although that hardly counts as a market and I don’t remember hearing about AJAX until Google made it famous (although maybe I am wrong and MS has been using AJAX techniques since '97). I never play video games, so I don’t know what innovations MS introduced in that sector. What were they?

MS Research is more like a Xerox PARC or a Bell Labs, isn’t it? I don’t believe that their research has much to do with MS’s core software business, if I understand it correctly. Feel free to enlighten me.


NT introduced the delayed procedure call, which I think has been adopted in Linux, but that is an innovative internal interface not a product.

Microsoft’s big innovation was the idea of an OS as a product, rather than being bundled with HW.

You may want to sit this discussion out and participate in a topic in which you have some knowledge.

Bingo. Before they came along, there wasn’t really a software industry. Back in those days, hardware was expensive and programmers were cheap.

How many times has anyone “invented a product for which no market previously existed?” If you confine the list to “big picture” things like the GUI or the PDA, then there are a small number of such inventions and inventors. And while Apple might have invented the term PDA, it’s debatable whether their product was the first one. And of course it was a commercial failure. Palm Pilot deserves a lot of credit for having probably the first successful PDA. And while Xerox invented the GUI, mouse, laser printer, etc., they didn’t make them commercially successful.

My point is that the idea of whether someone “invented a product for which no market previously existed” is unimportant.

I expect that a number of the famous names that supposedly invented this or that would turn out to have used parts that [del]cribbed from[/del] inspired by, or coincidentally similar to previous systems. Case in point being Xerox’s action against Palm Inc - claiming that the Grafitti handwriting recognition technology infringed their patented Unistroke technology (which wasn’t actually all that similar anyway), but it turns out that the Xerox patent wasn’t valid because there were prior implementations of similar technologies.

You’ve been called on the carpet for this post already, but there’s even more BS here than meets the eye.

There were no OS’s in the 40s. There were barely computers in the 40s, and they were not run by operating systems, but by actual, human computer operators.

The OS did not come into play until the timesharing systems of the early 1960s.

An operating system isn’t simply something that “tells the computer what to do”. That’s what a program (or process) is for. An OS does three things: manage the various physical resources of the computer, manage the various processes that want to use those resources, and allocate the resources to the processes in a manner that will ostensibly work out as well as possible, time-wise for all of them. An OS also needs to provide the user with some sort of interface to access the computer as well.

BASIC and COBOL are languages in which you can write processes which may or may not be part of an operating system. But they can not in any way be construed to be OS’s themselves.

I would say .NET is a reaction to Java, and very imitative of it. Grudgingly call that an improvement over Java, but not an innovation.

These are more audio and video codecs, brought into a world already teeming with the things. Perhaps these codecs were novel and different when they were introduced on Windows, but they’re not an innovation from the perspective of the entire industry.

In fact, it would appear that WMV at least wasn’t really a Microsoft product anyway, in the early days:

Give Microsoft good marks for building a solid office suite over the years, but again, let’s not call it innovation. Every application in this suite took its lead initially from other products of the same categories: the word processor, the spreadsheet, the database, the presentation manager, etc. There were other competing products that predate Microsoft’s offerings.

Also, they didn’t invent the unified office suite either. At least Appleworks, on the Apple II, came up with the idea first — if not something even earlier.

How about Visual IDEs for programming languages such as Basic and C? Or did someone else do that first?

Now, to address the OP.

The number of actual innovaters in the world of computers is actually very small.

Take Windows, for example.

The original DOS was not a Microsoft innovation. They bought the QDOS operating system from, I believe, Tim Patterson (hiring him in the process), and essentially rebranded it to sell to IBM as an (not the, there were actually two others available initially) operating system for their PC project.

But Patterson was not the innovater either. QDOS is largely reputed to be more or less a port to a particular Intel line of chips of the CP/M operating system, already popular on a number of systems designed by Gary Kildall. I don’t particularly know how much Kildall borrowed from UNIX or any other OS’s that came before, so it’s hard to say who the real innovator was there.

These OS’s were all command-line interfaces. The graphic user interface came to the PC in 1985, shortly after Apple introduced the MacOS on their own machines in 1984. If one looks closely at the parallel developments of Windows and MacOS over time, one sees Windows borrowing a lot more from Mac over the last twenty years than the other way around.

So does that mean that Apple are the true innovators? Not in this case. The WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse and Pointer) interface did not originate with Apple. They and Microsoft got the idea from the Xerox PARC systems. And the Xerox systems were merely a refinement of the interface on the NLS (On-Line System) at the Stanford Research Institute, overseen by Douglas Engelbart. Engelbart invented the mouse and the WIMP interface as a means of using hypertext links to navigate files in a networked environment. In the late 1960s. His first semi-public presentation of the system in 1968, now known as the “Mother of All Demos”, is available in various forms of video in various places on the web.

So is Engelbart the innovator? In many ways, yes. But he freely admits that the ideas he was trying to implement, a means for people to easily and intuitively access a wide variety of related information, was the idea of Vannevar Bush, who described a system he called Memex, the name coming from the idea that if you give a person quick and easy access to a vast store of information, you have effectively extended their memory. The idea of Memex, conceived in the fifties, is that you would sit at a special interactive sort of desk, reading, and when you came across a particular word, phrase or idea upon which you wanted to read more, you would indicate this to Memex, which would use some sort of high-speed pulley contraption to whisk the needed volume to the desk for your perusal.

So is Bush the innovator? Well, for obvious reasons, Memex was never built, although its software simulation, the World Wide Web (invented by Tim Berners-Lee, who also freely acknowledges his debt to V. Bush), working with Engelbart’s WIMP interface, has proved quite successful. So can you be an innovator if your ideas remain thoughts, and not products? Can you be an innovator if the things you design are based on someone else’s vision? I think I would say yes in both instances.

I would say innovation consists of finding something you want done, and creating (even if only in your mind) the means to do it. These two steps do not necessarily need to be accomplished by the same entity.

So does Microsoft innovate? Sometimes, IMO, but it is not their strength. I find them slow at realizing what people want done, and they usually find someone who is already working toward a solution, and buy them out or co-opt their work. But to say they never innovate would be lying.

The original vision for the next generation of Windows, Vista and its nominal successor, Blackcomb, were impressive to me. For some time, it has been clear to a number of people that advances in database design over the last few decades have made the various standard structures of operating systems seem obsolete and kludgy by comparison, to the point that one of the standard college texts on OS’s, Operating System Concepts (co-authored by Andrew Tannenbaum, creator of Linux predecessor Minix) illustrates its cover with dinosaurs. Some have thought that the next great OS innovation would be a DB-driven OS.

From what I have been able to glean, Microsoft was envisioning ( after the laid-off DEC people they hired more or less refused to keep pretending that Windows was a good product, and pushed for the radical redesign that became XP) another radical redesign of the very idea of an operating system, using some of these database ideas, and a host of other stuff. This would be innovation by anyone’s standard. They knew it would take some time, so the plan was to make Blackcomb the flagship product, and release Vista with what new stuff could be redesigned quickly as an interim product.

Assuming Vista finally comes out early next year, it will be four years late. To even meet that deadline, they are finding they must jettison many of the new technologies planned, retaining mainly Aero, the glassy WIMP interface, which was more or less already done in Mac OSX.

So yes, Microsoft does innovate from time to time, but they really suck at it, so they often don’t bother.

Not really.

Apple, Commodore, and Tandy did this first with their machines in the late 1970s. IBM only got around to introducing the first IBM PC in 1981, largely because it could no longer ignore the explosive commercial success of those other computers, which by then were in millions of homes, schools, and businesses. IBM would have been happy to make car-sized mainframes until the end of time, if they hadn’t been pushed.

Microsoft of course got in the OS business — and later, the office application business — by riding on top of IBM’s success in the 1980s. Even so, they got the initial contract to produce PC-DOS more or less by accident. They weren’t driving anything in the industry at that point; they were a minor company in 1980, making programming language implementations like BASIC interpreters and FORTRAN compilers. If events had gone a little differently, Digital Research’s CP/M might have been the dominant OS on the PC, and Microsoft would have gone back to languages.

As it is, Microsoft didn’t innovate with DOS either. They weren’t an operating system company yet. Instead, they bought DOS from someone else (Tim Paterson, of Seattle Computer Products) for $50,000. Paterson’s DOS was itself a reverse-engineered imitation of CP/M, with some of the commands renamed.

Note that this is just how things went down in the United States. The story of how computers first came to the masses in other countries is quite different. (Ask a middle-aged Brit to tell you about the BBC Acorn, for example.) Again though, Microsoft was not a driving or innovating force behind anything in early personal computing.

I believe Borland’s Turbo Pascal beats them here, at least, but I’m not sure.

If you’ll accept Emacs as an interactive editor and compiler (which it is, among other things), then that certainly predates the Visual development environments.