02/11/2001

Mailbag:

Innovation

Steve DeLassus asked me for some ideas of where I see innovation, since I said Microsoft isn’t it. That’s a tough question. On the end-user side, it’s definitely not Microsoft. They’ve refined some old ideas, but most of their idea of Innovation is taking utilities that were once separate products from companies Microsoft wants to drive out of business, then grafting them onto the OS in such a way as to make them appear integrated. What purpose does making the Explorer interface look like a Web browser serve? Doesn’t everyone who’s used a real file manager (e.g. Norton Commander or Directory Opus) agree that the consumer would have been better served by replicating something along those lines? Not that that’s particularly innovative either, but at least it’s improving. The only innovation Microsoft does outside of the software development arena (and that makes sense; Microsoft is first and foremost a languages company and always has been) seems to be to try to find ways to drive other companies out of business or to extract more money out of their customers.

Richard Stallman’s GNU movement has very rarely been innovative; it’s been all about cloning software they like and making their versions free all along. It’s probably fair to call Emacs innovative; it was a text editor with a built-in programming environment long before MS Word had that capability. But I don’t see a whole lot of innovation coming out of the Open Source arena–they’re just trying to do the same thing cheaper, and in some cases, shorter and faster, than everyone else.

So, where is there innovation? I was thinking there was more innovation on the hardware side of things, but then I realized that a lot of those “innovations” are just refinements that most people think should have been there in the first place–drives capable of writing to both DVD-R and CD-R media, for instance. Hardware acceleration of sound and network cards is another. Amiga had hardware acceleration of its sound in 1985, so it’s hard to call that innovation. It’s an obvious idea.

A lot of people think Apple and Microsoft are being really innovative with their optical mice, but optical mice were around for years and years before either of those companies “invented” them. The optical mice of 2000 are much better than the optical mice of 1991–no longer requiring a gridded mouse pad and providing smoother movement–but remember, in 1991, the mainstream CPUs were the Intel 80286 and the 80386sx. That’s a far, far cry from the Thunderbird-core AMD Athlon. You would expect a certain degree of improvement.

I’d say the PalmPilot is innovative, but all they really did was take a failed product, Apple’s Newton, and figure out what went wrong and make it better. So I guess you could say Apple innovated there, but that was a long time ago.

So I guess the only big innovation I’ve seen recently from the end-user side of things has been in the software arena after all. I’m still not sold on Ray Ozzie’s Groove, but have to admit it’s much more forward-thinking than most of the things I’ve seen. Sure, it looks like he’s aping Napster, but he started working on Groove in 1997, long before Napster. Napster’s just file sharing, which has been going on since the 1960s at least, but in a new way. There again, I’m not sure that it’s quite right to call it true innovation, but I think it’s more innovative than most of the things I’ve seen come out of Microsoft and Apple, who are mostly content to just copy each other and SGI and Amiga and Xerox. If they’re going to steal, they should at least steal the best ideas SGI and Amiga had. Amiga hid its menu bars to save screen space. Maybe that shouldn’t be the default behavior, but it would be nice to make that an option. SGI went one further, making the pull-down menus accessible anywhere onscreen by right-clicking. This isn’t the same as the context menu–the program’s main menu came up this way. This saved real estate and mouse movements.

I’m sure I could think of some others but I’m out of time this morning. I’d like to hear what some other people think is innovative. And yes, I’m going to try to catch up on e-mail, either this afternoon or this evening. I’ve got a pretty big backlog now.

Mailbag:

Innovation

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