Microsoft 'Project Greenhouse' Aims To Break New Product Ground

Microsoft's Information Worker unit has heated up an internal incubator to foster development of new products and businesses.
If an idea is accepted, the person who brought it forward gets the freedom to test it out. "No one's breathing down your neck on a daily basis. The dependencies [between product groups] are not there," Kishore said. The real benefit is being able to watch the concept from birth to execution and see it have an impact, he said. Material rewards are another matter. "Will someone in Greenhouse become a billionaire? I don't think so. But if I'm driven by money, then maybe I should go somewhere else. If I want to do something for millions of users that have an impact, I can do it here."

Initially Greenhouse relied on an internal "board" from across the company to OK projects and allocate funding. "It served a very good purpose but at that point there was no solid muscle memory or empirical evidence to determine what kinds of ideas we funded or didn't fund. We've now matured . And are focused more internally," Kishore said. Now decisions are made by the GM, group vice president Jeff Raikes and the Information Worker senior leadership team, Kishore said.

As is usual for Microsoft, the company researched and set out guidelines for new projects. A green-lighted project should address one of four target areas: information overload and mobile access needs; collaboration or information sharing; easing tracking and management of multiple projects; or connecting business people and their processes.

Some observers say such strictures negate the whole point of an incubator, which ideally should come up with what is totally new and different.

Microsoft is caught in a dilemma, says Paul Degroot, analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., research firm. On the one hand, the company is trying to do so much now it is seen as having no focus and increasingly has difficulty bringing much-hyped products--Longhorn, Yukon, Whidbey--to market in a timely manner.

On the other, some product groups, who've been told to focus on their core businesses, often cite customer research as showing users don't want X new product or feature. "So, management declines to develop something, and it turns out yeah, maybe their existing customers don't want it , but maybe new customers would want it," Degroot said.

Degroot also sounds the now-common refrain that Microsoft has difficulty recruiting and retaining key people and keeping them excited about their mission. "The company is becoming like IBM. It's really large and one look at the Longhorn timeline shows you that even getting innovative, exciting technology out of the company can quickly turn into a marathon."

No one should forget, Degroot says, that Longhorn was due in 2004. Now the client is slated for 2006 and the server for 2007.

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