Integrated Innovation?

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For a variety of reasons, I’ve been fielding a lot more questions lately regarding “integrated innovation” and its impact on Microsoft [1] or open source projects, so I thought it’d be useful to get some of my thoughts down on the topic so that you’d have some idea of where I stand.

So for the record, I think the notion of “integrated innovation” – which for the unfamiliar is the process (championed most loudly by Microsoft) by which products with related functionality are tied together in a “greater than the sum of the parts” kind of thing – does have promise. Integration between messaging systems – such as IM and email – is one example that I think will bear fruit very soon, and there are countless others.

But I think integrated innovation as a development assumption rather than an occasional, opportunistic product decision is questionable at best, and damaging at worst. And as it turns out, there are a lot of other people who think the same thing.

Joel Spolsky:

Microsoft has a lot of troubles steering the company. If you look at InfoPath and talk to developers on it, they had that thing ready to go years ago. But they couldn’t release it, because they had to do all this “Office stuff” — things like customizable tool bars, VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) and lots and lots of other things like that. The cross of being a good Office application which took 90 percent of their time is what’s called the “strategy tax.” And that makes them a much less nimble company, I think. (link)


My take: because we’re big, boring, and too entangled in each other’s business. We are now IBM. We spackle in process to make up for the gaps in intellectual progress. Perhaps I have a snazzy new web app idea. There’s no way I could incubate that into something that would ever see the light of phosphor as a Microsoft-brand. I’d have to hook Passport up to it, and then glom some sort of MSN story on-top of it. No, we might say how we need to be quick and agile and deft, but then we end up spending 1000% of our time trying to justify it. (link)

Keep an Open Eye:

Bottom line – BizTalk 2004 and InfoPath 2003 are two of the most promising products I have reviewed in the application development over the past two years. These are both contenders for being Killer Applications except for one thing. The Master calls and the CSA decrees that these tools must run best in Windows. (link)

Linus Torvalds:

Nobody should start to undertake a large project. You start with a small _trivial_ project, and you should never expect it to get large. If you do, you’ll just overdesign and generally think it is more important than it likely is at that stage. Or worse, you might be scared away by the sheer size of the work you envision.

So start small, and think about the details. Don’t think about some big picture and fancy design. If it doesn’t solve some fairly immediate need, it’s almost certainly over-designed. And don’t expect people to jump in and help you. That’s not how these things work. You need to get something half-way _useful_ first, and then others will say “hey, that _almost_ works for me”, and they’ll get involved in the project.

And if there is anything I’ve learnt from Linux, it’s that projects have a life of their own, and you should _not_ try to enforce your “vision” too strongly on them. Most often you’re wrong anyway, and if you’re not flexible and willing to take input from others (and willing to change direction when it turned out your vision was flawed), you’ll never get anything good done. (link)

What all of this points to, I think, is the need to take a step back and think about what really needs to be integrated. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery says, “You know you’ve achieved perfection in design, Not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.” There’s a lesson in there for software projects, if they’re interested.


[1] It’s not limited to Microsoft, by any means – I’ve called out Gnome on a related topic here.


  1. > There’s no way I could incubate that into something that would ever see the light of phosphor as a Microsoft-brand.

    That’s funny, Scoble just claimed on my blog that they can ship a product with 4 people. Lets see 1 PM, 1 Dev, 1 QA, 1 Marketing. Mmm Hmm. My guess is the real number is around 40.

  2. i’d tend to agree. while some projects could doubtless be designed and executed with a programmer or two, it’s difficult to deliver a QA’d project with a 4 person team. particularly for MS, whose ubiquity can be an anchor in some situations.

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