Thursday, 7 May 2009

When innovation stalls.....

Software evolves at an alarming rate; canny providers add functionality without changing users work practice excessively. What do I mean by this? Up until very recently, most word processors looked very similar. Most had similar rows of buttons, in the same place, that do the same thing. Then...enter Microsoft Office 2007! I produce documents approximately 50% of my work time. I began word processing about 14 years ago and have become very used to the familiar layout of the Office tool. Now I find that I need to re-learn how to use the Office tools that I once took for granted. Since a recent upgrade to Office 2007 my productive rate has almost halved due to the process of having to re-learn adding/making diagrams, finding hidden components that were once visible and updating diagrams that no longer work in the new format. Is it acceptable for large scale organisations (i.e. Microsoft) for force changes in practice in this way? We have undergone a change in work practice without consultation and without discussion of the implication of the change. We now live in a world where we fully understand that the free market can and does fail consumers (i.e. the credit crunch). As it presently stands organisations like Microsoft have full veto to produce software as they see fit based on (presumably) their market research findings. What this implies is that software is less likely to be focused around 'the need', more likely around the 'profit'. I make the assumption that Microsoft felt the need to differentiate its product in a remarkable way. Office 2003, looks like OpenOffice (a free opensource office package) which in turn looks like Google Docs. For businesses the central need is to maintain profitability; this isn’t fundamentally wrong but in key economic areas it is questionable whether we want ‘for profit’ agencies to have full control of developmental resources. The question I raise is whether these changes in practice are acceptable, and whether greater central control would be beneficial for key computer technologies like operating systems and productive software like word processors. Surely, change would then come about because it is needed rather than to maintain profitability for private shareholders? After all, there doesn't appear to be much new functionality in Office 2007. This concept probably sounds very left wing, but it isn't for this reason. At the Lancaster Centre for e-Science, and it is the same for many software producing academic departments around the world, our ideas are vetted centrally via a peer review process that assesses the need for the ideas we propose. Initially we have an idea, say, to produce a new software tool based on a perceived need. We gather support from potentially interested organisations then form a consortium that would form the project team should the funding be awarded. We gain support from local organisations (e.g. regional agencies, business etc) then submit the bid to a central government funding agency. It is then reviewed anonymously by experts in the field. If they see that our argument contains flaws, or that the work is not sufficiently novel (e.g. new look, not new functionality), then they would reasonably reject our proposal. This process is not perfect but it works reasonably well. Surely we now understand the absolute need of computers in our society sufficiently NOT to let major players force technologies upon us that really don't do anything more than earlier versions yet change work practice significantly? For example, would the review process I highlight have allowed Microsoft to launch the Vista operating system as early as it did? Microsoft, by its own admission, launched a product that didn't do much more than XP, yet, it required new machines to be purchased as it was terribly memory hungry; a clear cost to society. Maybe I am wrong! Maybe this process we observe is that of the incumbent firm finally entering the final phase of its ultimate demise. As Rome and IBM fell from their respective pedestals’ surely will Microsoft. Maybe this is the process that will allow newer, absolutely novel approaches in computing to take over (Schumpeterian logic?). It would be crucial therefore, not to embrace Microsoft too tightly, and seek something a little more innovative. If Microsoft’s innovation cycle is almost finished, surely those that use its technologies will be less able to innovate also.

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