Microsoft, GitHub, and the Irony

Microsoft acquiring GitHub, the largest open-source code repository, brings them full circle to the infamous 1976 open letter by Gates to computer hobbyists who were sharing, not buying, their BASIC software for the Altair. The irony should be savored.

Bill_Gates_Letter_to_Hobbyists

In ’75, Microsoft got its start when Gates and Allen adapted BASIC for the Altair 8800. BASIC was originally written by two Dartmouth professors, who put it in the public domain. As Paul Ceruzzi wrote in A History of Modern Computing:

“with its skillful combination of features taken from Dartmouth and from the Digital Equipment Corporation, [BASIC] was the key to Gates’ and Allen’s success in establishing a personal computer software industry.”In 1981, MS-DOS, Microsoft’s operating system for the IBM PC, was acquired for $75,000 from the tiny Seattle Computer Products (who themselves borrowed it from Digital Research’s CP/M).

That wasn’t the last of Microsoft’s creative pursuits.

Microsoft Word was originally written by Xerox PARC engineers as Bravo (but never marketed); it became a Microsoft product when Microsoft hired one of its original authors, Charles Simonyi, away from PARC.

Excel was derived from Visicalc by Software Arts, and from Lotus.

And the graphical user environment that is Windows first appeared at PARC in the Alto personal computer, and then in the Apple Macintosh, before becoming Microsoft’s flagship product.

The world is powered by building on and recombining what has come before. Too often, where we stand on this fundamental creative process depends on whether we profits from creating or defending our innovations.

Lesley Gore, innovation in context

Lesley Gore passed away this week. She’s probably best know for It’s my Party but my favorite is You Don’t Own Me. To teenage girls in the early 1960s, looking at a bleak future in a Mad Men world, this must have been a powerful message (the song later became a feminist anthem). It’s hard to appreciate innovations like that 2-minute song without having the context of the times. So to honor her memory, my daughter and I played the song and then, to appreciate the context, watched the Folgers coffee ads of the time. Continue reading

Better batteries or better Electric Vehicles

Tesla recently announced its plans to be as big as Apple within 10 years (a bold statement given the electric car company sold 35,000 cars last year, just beating out the 30,000 iPhones Apple sold each hour last quarter). Regardless of Tesla’s promises, the future of electric cars hinges on advances in batteries which, in turn, hinge on how companies—and the country—choose to pursue those advances. Continue reading

A long view of disruption

The more dire the climate change predictions, the louder the calls for new and disruptive technologies. While it’s a great aspiration, as a theory disruptive innovation provides dangerous guidance on how disruption really happens. Continue reading

Nothing like a good fight over ideas

I’m not a big fan of ideas. Sure, ideas are great — some of my best friends are ideas. But managers tend to let our national obsession about having new ideas distract them from the hard work of building good products and successful ventures around what are almost always old ideas. So it was fun to see the great design OXO have at a competitor who claimed to “own” an idea that both had built products around.

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The challenge of innovating in brownfield versus greenfield markets

Across the globe, many of the opportunities for sustainable innovation will be in mature markets like energy, transportation, agriculture, construction and will present very different challenges from those of innovating in information technology, Internet applicaitons, or social media. The differences between driving change in these different conditions is a defining characteristic of each—something that entrepreneurs, investors, and policy makers alike seem to forget.

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