Don't Do Safe -- Why Innovation Isn't Always Disruptive

Mike Angiulo, Corporate Vice President, Windows Planning, Hardware & PC Ecosystem for Microsoft, left, demonstrates the Digit
Mike Angiulo, Corporate Vice President, Windows Planning, Hardware & PC Ecosystem for Microsoft, left, demonstrates the Digital Ink feature of "Surface", a new tablet computer running Windows 8 Pro at Hollywood's Milk Studios in Los Angeles Monday, June 18, 2012. The 9.3 millimeter thick tablet comes with a kickstand to hold it upright and keyboard that is part of the device's cover. It weighs under 1.5 pounds. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Everywhere I go someone is on a Samsung or Apple mobile device. A few years ago, I first started seeing people on planes working on their iPad; today I see iPads at every meeting I go to. More and more, I see Samsung Galaxy S3s. But in spite of all their advertising (Microsoft actually spends as much on advertising as Apple) I have yet to see anyone on a plane trip or at a meeting using a Microsoft Surface? I've seen a lot of Surface advertising and I've had a hands-on try of a Surface several times at one of the many Surface demo booths.

In the past, Microsoft has been a superb fast-follower. Bill Gates invented the concept of shrinkwrap software apps back in the 1970s, but I can't think of a significant user-centered concept where Microsoft has been the originator of an idea. Yet Microsoft is one of the world's greatest companies; it hires some of the most talented people; and it has created huge wealth for its stockholders over four decades. So why haven't they been a fast-follower in mobile?

Don't Do Safe

Google and Samsung have been the successful fast-followers in mobile; much as Microsoft and Intel were the very successful fast-followers with easy-to-use PCs 23 years ago. The formula of a fast-follower is to copy, improve and expand. It's shouldn't be to protect your cash cow. Yet that's exactly what Microsoft has done. While Google and Samsung moved immediately to capitalize on Apple's mobile innovations, Microsoft was slow to react and when it did Microsoft was conflicted with a desire to protect and justify the relevance of their Windows/Office cash cow in the new era of mobility.

In so doing Microsoft may have ended up creating a contrived product for a non-existent market.

Real disruptive innovation happens on the bleeding edge of opportunity. It's always about high risk, so undivided focus is key.

It's easy to assess why a very disruptive innovation was successful looking back. It begins with solving a really big problem before it becomes obvious to others -- think iPad.

Analysts were very skeptical when rumors were first heard about Apple developing a tablet; was Steve Jobs creating a cool, but contrived product for a non-existent market?

But looking back it's clear that a light weight, high-resolution display tablet solved a real problem -- mobile viewing of Internet broadband media on a screen bigger than a smartphone but with all the cool smartphone apps.

Microsoft waited too long to respond to Apple; it was so concerned about protecting its Windows/Office franchise that it compromised with a facelift on an old product concept, Windows PC, to make it look like an exciting new product.

Microsoft Surface tried to convince prospective users that putting a tablet touch screen on a PC would make a cool hybrid. What Microsoft created was wheels on a boat.

They did it because they could, not because it solved a big user problem in a good way.

As a mobile Internet viewer, Surface is too big compared to increasingly lighter weight tablets from competitors. Suggesting a PC is cool, just when PCs were becoming irrelevant commodities was not a believable brand marketing story.

The real test for a new product innovation should be, would you recommend this product or service to a friend?

So far, no one has recommended I get a Microsoft Surface.