Let's be honest. If you were to compile a list of words that encapsulate the last 10 years for Microsoft, the word 'innovative' probably wouldn't make an appearance. Sure, they've had great overall success with the Xbox and, more recently, with Xbox Kinect, but the bulk of their revenue is still derived from unexciting software like Microsoft Office and various iterations of Windows. Granted, they're still making money hand over first, but Microsoft hasn't really been on the vanguard of technological innovation for quite some time.
If anything, many of Microsoft's initiatives over the past decade have been "too little too late" responses to technological shifts that they didn't see coming. The success of the iPod begat the Zune. The success of Google begat Bing. The success of Android and the iPhone begat Windows Phone 7. As a result, companies like Google and Apple are now more readily associated with innovative technologies than Microsoft.
And it goes without saying that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer desparately wants to change that. Now, it's easy to poke fun at Ballmer, and the missteps of Microsoft under his reign have been well-documented, but you can't deny that the man has passion and is as dedicated as one could possibly be to righting the Microsoft ship.
Recently, Microsoft unveiled two new tablet devices under the 'Surface' umbrella. While their potential for success in the marketplace remains to be seen, it was abundantly clear that Microsoft's tablet initiative was not a lazy attempt at copying already successful products. Rather, Microsoft came to the table with some interesting innovations and ideas. Put differently, their take on the tablet experience is unique and different than what is currently out on the market. And regardless of whether or not Microsoft can gain a foothold in the tablet space, it's refreshing to see them putting their own spin on things. In a similar vein, Windows Phone 7 also embodied a new take on the way we use smartphones - and though Apple and Google continue to dominate the smartphone landscape, you have to give Microsoft credit for trying.
And lest you think Microsoft's tablet initiative is nothing more than an aberration, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently exclaimed, quite emphatically, that Microsoft is now preoccupied with out-innovating the innovators, specifically calling out Apple in the process.
In an interview given to CRN, Ballmer acknowledged that the company had let Apple make significant strides in both hardware and software innovation, but that going forward, Microsoft will not be as forgiving. Indeed, Ballmer specifically pointed to Microsoft's two new Surface tablets as the mark of a new era, an era when Microsoft will hopefully be looked upon as an innovative force to be reckoned with.
"We are trying to make absolutely clear we are not going to leave any space uncovered to Apple," Ballmer explained. He also pointed out that Microsoft has advantages over Apple when it comes to features like productivity and enterprise management. Though, to be sure, I'm not sure if productivity apps and enterprise management tools are what really drive innovation at companies like Apple and Google. But I digress.
"But we are not going to let any piece of this [go uncontested to Apple]," Ballmer added. "Not the consumer cloud. Not hardware software innovation. We are not leaving any of that to Apple by itself. Not going to happen. Not on our watch."
Again, you gotta admire the man's passion, but the true test will be if Microsoft can implement and execute their ideas into products and services that mainstream consumers get excited about. Remember, talk is cheap.
Adding that Microsoft feels "empowered to innovate everywhere," Ballmer promised not to leave "any stone unturned" in that pursuit.
An admirable goal, but it's fair to argue that attempting to innovate everywhere can often result in innovation nowhere. A big part of the reason Apple has been so successful is that they devote the bulk of their attention to only a few select market areas. By trying to innovate everywhere, so to speak, Microsoft runs the continued risk of spreading itself too thin and not really having a fundamental impact in any one market.
Regardless, Apple's ongoing success and string of innovative products have clearly caught the attention of Ballmer. While this isn't likely something new, it's rare to see it addressed so explicitly by the Microsoft CEO.
Interestingly enough, one person who seems to be on board with the "new" Microsoft is Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Speaking at the 2012 Entel summit in Chile, Wozniak was quite enthralled with Microsoft's recent products, noting that they "have such a strikingly good visual appearance which is a lot of what Steve Jobs always looked for, the art and technology; the convergence of art and technology."
Woz also added that while he'll have to waite and use a Surface tablet before passing judgement, he is "glad that Microsoft is, you know, starting to show that maybe they're a different company than before."
"I don't remember this sort of thing happening in a long, long time for Microsoft so I'm very happy," Woz added.