By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
February 4, 2010

The former New York Daily News editor who ran Bill Gates’ Tablet PC division tells all

In the week since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad, there’s been a lot of talk about where this leaves Amazon’s (AMZN) Kindle.

“But the much more important question,” writes Dick Brass in an essay prominently displayed on the OpEd page of Thursday’s
New York Times

“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.”

Part of the answer, Brass writes, is that Microsoft (MSFT) put too much faith in people like him, a former tabloid journalist and serial entrepreneur who wrote speeches for Oracle’s (ORCL) Larry Ellison before coming to Redmond to head the division that built the Tablet PC.

But mostly, he says, it’s because of internecine warfare among Microsoft’s established divisions and a “dysfunctional” corporate culture that squashes innovation.

To support his contention, he offers a couple of telling anecdotes in which he does everything but name names:

  • Microsoft’s ClearType display technology languished in the lab for years, he says, because engineers in the Windows group “falsely claimed” it made the display go haywire, the head of Office products said it was fuzzy and gave him headaches, and the vice president for pocket devices was said he’d support ClearType only if Brass transferred the programmers to his control.
  • In 2001, the vice president in charge of Microsoft Office refused to modify Word, Excel and Outlook to work properly with Brass’ tablet. Result: “if you wanted to enter a number into a spreadsheet or correct a word in an e-mail message, you had to write it in a special pop-up box, which then transferred the information to Office. Annoying, clumsy and slow.”

Brass believes that the intense, sometimes cut-throat, internal competition that Bill Gates fostered among his managers has devolved into something uncontrolled and destructive: “The big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence.”

“It’s not an accident,” he writes, “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.”

This may be sour grapes from a man whose project has just been eclipsed by Apple (AAPL), but it’s also a must-read. You can get it here.

“Obviously, we disagree. :)” writes spokesman Frank X. Shaw in Microsoft’s official response (smiley face included). You can read it here.

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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