Saturday, October 18, 2014

Is Microsoft the NASA of Software Companies?

Microsoft and NASA Frankenlogo
Both Microsoft and NASA unquestionably have done great things and have arguably contributed to the United States and the world in significant ways. Both are often criticized for undelivered projects or for having too much inertia that reflects the "good old days" rather than being set up for the future. As someone who has had two feet in the software industry for almost two decades, at Microsoft for over two years and a space enthusiast for years, I've been wondering about this: Is Microsoft the NASA of software companies?

Modest beginnings

NASA was an underdog in the early days of the space age and space race. It was formed to counteract the Soviet Union space program, which changed the meaning of airspace and caught the US unprepared when it launched Sputnik in 1957. Even after NASA was formed, USSR continued to lead in space. It launched the first man in space (who was also the first to orbit Earth), the first man-made object to soft-land on the moon and take photos and the first woman in space. We all know how one chapter of this story ended, when the race to put humans on the moon (and retrieve them safely) ended in 1969 with Apollo 11.
Microsoft, too, had to claw its way up, competing in markets where (unlike today) it wasn't the obvious leader or first, such as productivity (remember WordPerfect, Lotus123, QuattroPro or Eudora?) or gaming, where Microsoft started from scratch long after Sony and Nintendo were in the game.

Amazing things that no one else does

Arguably, at least historically, both NASA and Microsoft have been the dominant players in their respective domains. NASA put people on the moon in 1969. NASA was responsible for the biggest rockets, the most innovative and complex machine ever created (the Space Shuttle), not to mention putting an SUV on Mars (Curiosity aka Mars Science Laboratory) and the list goes on, all of which contributed to Earth-bound advancements in electronics, medical treatment, etc. not to mention understanding Earth and the universe.
Microsoft created Windows and Office, which while possibly don't inspire as much awe as space or landing on the moon, they run on most personal and work computers in the world, essentially forming the basis or tool-set for countless other innovations and technology advancements. Both NASA and Microsoft have research labs that contribute to future technologies and prove concepts that may have been science-fiction yesterday but could become science-fact tomorrow.
The details of Microsoft buying companies or borrowing from other products and NASA contracting other companies are irrelevant here. The fact is that not only both have done amazing things, but others can't or at least couldn't do, due to funding or scale.

Black sheep

With the territory of big audacious projects and amazing things no one else does, come those who didn't make it or came off the other side of a road full of good intentions as unfulfilled potential. When this happens, a lot of money is at least perceived as going down the drain. In addition, questioning the decision making processes that led to the specific projects surfaces, depending on the reasons for the demise - technical, financial, political, etc.
Microsoft had Windows Vista, for example. Six years after its successful older sister, Windows XP, was released, Vista didn't quite make it in the real world, losing a lot of what originally were flagship features (WinFS, anyone?), getting lukewarm reviews at best and poor customer adoption.
NASA also spent time and resources on projects that got reset or cancelled (and drew attention), Constellation being the latest and most known recently, cancelled (and partially resurrected as the Space Launch System aka SLS) after one test flight of Ares-X, with cost in the billions of dollars even for shutting it down.


For NASA, politics are a part of the course, possibly even a driving force. Congressional districts, lobbying, elections that come and go much faster than what it takes to start and finish a space project as well as having a new president at most every eight years all impact NASA as a federal agency. While space is not one of the hottest issues (it comes far lower after health, poverty, unemployment, etc.) it is a fertile ground for making a memorable impact (quick, who were presidents before and after J.F.K.?), and it's hard to make a lasting impact if all you do is to continue following your predecessor's plans...
Microsoft is not immune from politics either. As a dominant market-share holder it has been the target of politicians, forcing it to spend money and time on projects such as Windows without a media player for Europe or democratizing the default browser in Windows. Politics also comes in other, more subtle forms, such as forcing it to change the name of SkyDrive to OneDrive because a TV provider in the U.K. owns the word "Sky".

Becoming stale?

With all the glory, NASA and Microsoft are increasingly considered stale, irrelevant, heavy and wasteful. Some say SLS will never fly and it's undeniably too expensive for the current budget, flying only every several years. There is a lot of hope hanging on private companies like SpaceX, counting on them to build the next round of human spaceflight vehicles to low-Earth-orbit faster than NASA would.
Similarly, with the rise of Android and iOS, Windows is in decline. Microsoft's attempts at mobile have thus far not captured a lot of market share from iOS or Android (even though both Google and Apple did the same to Microsoft and Blackberry a few years earlier). Both NASA and Microsoft are often considered inefficient in terms of building the next iteration of systems - be it launch systems or operating systems. Both are big, structured entities, with seemingly unmodifiable structure of dispersed centers for NASA and similarly rigid business units for Microsoft.

So, is the answer a resounding yes?

About a year or so ago, when I just started thinking about writing about this, the answer in my mind was an ambivalently proud but somewhat embarrassing yes. I thought of Microsoft as everything I wrote above - akin to a yesteryear wiz-kid riding a skateboard who can't quite muster the tricks kids a few years younger now do on their hoverboards. But that was a very limited view. Microsoft is going through a series of big changes, including reorganizing groups and business units, layoffs (not necessarily a good thing, I know), combining development and testing, moving towards faster ship cycles and agile methodologies and flattening management levels. None of these are guarantors of success, but they show recognition that there is a problem (OK, multiple...) and that Microsoft is willing and able to realign according to future needs rather than past needs.
As someone who has been following space news but admittedly with zero visibility into NASA management, I can cautiously say I have not seen any such radical changes happening at NASA. Sure, small budgets are going towards commercializing space access, but it doesn't seem like the fundamental issues of a huge structure supporting and preserving jobs in congressional districts are being dealt with, maybe not yet, anyway. The reasons seem to be anchored in the politics that drives even an agency full of rocket scientists rather than those rocket scientists themselves or their management.

Renewal - looking forward

Microsoft is renewing. Not bound by political vises, answering only to their financial constituents, aka shareholders. While the stock market generally responds well to change, sometimes painful change, congressional districts and their electives do not.
However, renewal in my opinion is a key (but not guarantee) to success. What Microsoft knows it needs to do, even the way it should be built in order to succeed in 2014 and beyond, is very different than even 10 years ago - before Android, iOS, or the cloud as we know it today, just to name a few radical market changes.
Will NASA go through radical changes in the next few years? Will centers be consolidated? Will the country leadership allow or direct NASA to renew and change? Will NASA get a bigger budget than a fraction of a cent on the dollar? I'm not equipped with neither inside information nor enough college degrees to answer those questions. At the end of the day, maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe private companies will pick up the pieces and be all that's necessary. But I doubt it. As the joke goes, to make a small fortune in the space industry you have to start with a big fortune, and until that changes (joke or no joke), there's a place for a space agency just like there is a place for Microsoft in the future of consumer electronics and computers.

Update - The Space Show

On October 31 2014 I was honored to be on The Space Show with Dr. David Livingston and discuss this article. Comparing between the two entities was interesting and I got very interesting questions both from Dr. Livingston and from listeners. To see the show details and listen to it, click here.

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