Microsoft is always talking about “innovation” – a word that means the act of introducing something new. I’m not sure why new isn’t good enough and it’s certainly a lot easier to pronounce than innovation – but then I’m not sure if Microsoft has anything very new to introduce.
For practically all of its history, Microsoft has rarely introduced anything that’s very new. The Windows interface is just a different kind of graphical user interface and there were already examples around when Windows 1 was released. There were already plenty of word processors, databases and spreadsheets around – in the bad old days of DOS Microsoft had quite some trouble coping with competition from Xywrite, WordStar and especially Wordperfect. Microsoft’s own DOS based word processor, Word, was really not at all simple to use.
Microsoft Outlook was ultimately based on Network Courier, and so there was nothing particularly new about that either. VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet for a personal computer, but Lotus 1-2-3 ruled the roost in spreadsheets for the PC, while in databases Ashton-Tate with dBase was the PC flavor of choice. Borland had some pretty cool and new stuff in the applications realm. The original metal Microsoft Mouse was quite nice though.
All that changed because in the battle of the graphical user interface, Microsoft essentially won with Windows. Competitors, whether they liked it or not, had to produce Windows versions of their software. That, generally, was a "good" thing for users, if not for Microsoft's competition. By a clever combination of marketing and technology, Microsoft won the office suite software wars too. Heck, it did the same with browsers – not that its browser was “better” – but it was certainly omnipresent on PCs, and deliberately so.
I do like to contrast Google with Microsoft. I don’t believe for a second that Google is “good” and Microsoft is “evil” – they’re now both large multinational corporations. IBM was based on Quaker values, Novell was based on Mormon values and Lotus, we think, was based on atheist values. But neither Microsoft nor Google are based on any religious values at all.
Nevertheless, Google does do new things. Its search engine came from nowhere and rapidly dominated the market – the verb “to Google” is now part of the English language and I can’t really see “to Bing” achieving that status at all.
Google’s Android platform is new and although other elements of its software such as the excellent Google Translate or Picasa aren’t really “new”, they’re certainly done better than a lot of stuff that’s out there.
Of course Google makes its money out of advertising and has cleverly managed to corner the market for both vendors and buyers with its Adwords and Adsense schemes. It’s worrying the hell out of regular publishers – not just with its advertising and metrics offerings, but also with its plans to scan in millions of books. And it's bothering journalists too - Google News creates a carousel of commoditized news with everyone chasing each other round and around to a perpetual cacophany of fairground music.
What’s new about Google is that it’s got the balls to take on the world and in certain spheres it’s just done that. It probably hasn’t got a snowball in hell’s chance of really making waves with the Chrome OS, but it knows that creating such a piece of software will irritate the heck out of Microsoft.
Frankly, Google has got Microsoft on the hop in a number of areas and I can’t ever see the Redmond multinational catching up. Unless, that is, the regulatory bodies see that Google is an antitrust monster and needs stopping, or curbing at the very least.
The real difference between Microsoft and Google is that the latter is a pure play internet company. Microsoft only jumped on the internet bandwagon when it realized that it had to. In the process, it ceded some ground to competitors that it hadn’t even realized would give it a headache and a half.