Former Microsoft Exec Slams Company

Dick Brass, a former Microsoft vice president who retired six years ago, claims that his alma mater is failing.

At least, that’s what he said about Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) in an op-ed piece in The New York Times on Thursday.

“No one in his right mind should wish Microsoft failure. And yet it is failing, even as it reports record earnings,” Brass said in the opinion piece titled “Microsoft’s Creative Destruction.”

Brass said he is the right person to know. He was a mover behind Microsoft’s push into electronic book e-readers and tablet computing a decade ago. But, he said, Microsoft’s leadership didn’t want to support that vision. He left the company in 2004.

“The … important question is why Microsoft, America’s most famous and prosperous technology company, no longer brings us the future, whether it’s tablet computers like the iPad, e-books like Amazon’s Kindle, smartphones like the BlackBerry and iPhone, search engines like Google, digital music systems like iPod and iTunes or popular Web services like Facebook and Twitter,” he said in the piece.

He also referred to Microsoft’s foray into the game console market, the Xbox 360, as “at best an equal contender in the game console business.”

Further, he cites an early innovation that he championed internally as a key technology for giving Microsoft a leg up in the then almost non-existent e-book reader arena. Called ClearType, it was designed to make text appear more clear on laptop screens by turning parts of pixels on or off.

While he claimed it would have given Microsoft a decided advantage over competitors, “a decade passed before a fully operational version of ClearType finally made it into Windows.” Partly, he blamed the vice president in charge of Microsoft Office at the time for undercutting his support with senior management.

That crippled Microsoft’s efforts to jump start the tablet computer market in 2001, he said. The executive, who he doesn’t name, was Steven Sinofsky, now president of Microsoft’s Windows Division.

A doomed tablet effort?

Further, by refusing to support stylus input in Office, Microsoft all but doomed its own efforts on the tablet computer.

All of this was at least partly the fault of senior management’s penchant for pitting competing groups inside the company against each other in order to spur innovation.

“At Microsoft, it has created a dysfunctional corporate culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams … It’s not an accident that almost all the executives in charge of Microsoft’s music, e-books, phone, online, search and tablet efforts over the past decade have left,” Brass added.

Microsoft proud of its record

It didn’t take long for Microsoft to respond to Brass’ philippic.

“Obviously, we disagree,” Frank Shaw, corporate vice president for corporate communications said in a blog entry also posted on Thursday.

Shaw pointed out what he felt were data points that counter Brass’ arguments.

For instance, ClearType has been included with Windows for the past decade, surfacing first in Microsoft Reader and, later, in Windows XP — albeit it was turned off by default.

“For the record, ClearType now ships with every copy of Windows we make, and is installed on around a billion PCs around the world. This is a great example of innovation with impact: innovation at scale,” Shaw’s response said. (A Microsoft official confirmed that ClearType is turned on by default in Windows 7.)

Shaw also assailed Brass’ characterization of the Xbox 360.

“Fact is, Xbox 360 was the first high-definition console. It was the first to digitally deliver games, music, TV shows and movies in 1080p high definition. The first to bring Facebook and Twitter to the living room,” Shaw countered.

He also pointed to Project Natal, Microsoft’s forthcoming camera-based controller for Xbox 360 that turns the user into the controller. Introduced last summer, the device has gotten some early good press, although it’s not yet available for beta testing yet. Natal is due out in time for this year’s holiday sales.

In addition, as Microsoft officials said last week when the company reported record second fiscal quarter earnings, subscriptions to Xbox Live have reached 23 million, a gain of 35 percent from the same time last year.

In the end, however, the argument is not one likely to be settled any time soon. What is indisputable is that if Microsoft is failing, it still has a long ways to fall.

Stuart J. Johnston is a contributing writer at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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