As the end of 2010 approaches, there have been many lists of which companies were the most innovative. While for the most part I agree with those lists, I’d like to take a moment to share my vision of the three most innovative modern software technology companies. I also want to take note of two honorable mentions and one other company that is frequently listed. Note that this list is not which companies were the most innovative during 2010, but rather the most innovative companies as of 2010. We’ll go in reverse order to keep things interesting.
Not Really Innovative: Facebook
While Facebook has an absurdly large user base and has changed many people’s way of using the internet, it hasn’t in my opinion innovated in a productive way. In other words, how does Facebook contribute to society? “Well, it’s a better way for people to connect.” I agree, so let’s call that an innovation that it successfully accomplished back in 2005. What else does Facebook contribute to society? Beyond the basic profiles and user base, I’m unable to think of any area in which Facebook has really broken new ground or had real innovation. It seems like all of its applications have been mimics of other applications (Flickr –> Photos, RSS –> News Feed, FourSquare –> Places, etc). I remember once in the past hearing that Facebook was going to use its social network for research and innovation, like understanding social graphs, but unfortunately haven’t seen any progress on that in the last 5 years. Sorry Facebook, but I don’t see the innovation in wasting people’s time, having casual games, and getting a movie made about you.
Honorable Mentions: Nintendo and Intel (neither are software companies)
Nintendo gets my honorable mention for creating and popularizing a new gaming platform, one that I expect will expand beyond gaming and in retrospect will become known as a key point in the movement to create more human usable technology. Without the Wii, we would not have the Playstation Move or the Kinect, and we would have substantially less interest in taking “human input” and human interactive computing. I think this is the first step to having technology systems like Tony Stark’s.
Intel has done a tremendous job at creating ultra-fast processors, which have enabled all the rest of software innovation. Without the innovation of multiple cores, hyper threading, chip-based security, and more, we could still be running Pentium IIs. Do you remember how slow computers were back in the 90s? Now, they are insanely fast, built with nano-scale parts, and are ultra energy-efficient. Intel has paved the way for the advances of modern software.
Third Place: Apple
Apple on the other hand has definitely broken into “new” ground. I put “new” in quotes because mobile music players existed long before the iPod, tablet computing has been attempted long before the iPad, and smartphones existed long before the iPhone. However, I do give due credit to Apple for taking long-failed ideas and successfully commercializing them. I think a lot of the true innovation of Apple is not in the idea in the product, but its ability to mass-market and greatly expand the market for these ideas. In effect, it makes existing unpopular ideas into “ideas whose time have come”. It’s unmatched quality of product and marketing genius, really. This is truly valuable, and despite that I give Apple no points for technical advances, I genuinely appreciate it for its role in changing the face of consumer electronics.
Second Place: Google
Google is awesome, and there’s no question about it. They’ve developed fantastic products, defined whole new industries (search, ads as a business, ad networks, the freemium model, google apps as online replacements of desktop software, cloud computing, software as a service, to name only the largest ones). Google has changed the world, really, and they’ve done it many times over. I’m a huge proponent of their Google Labs and 20% developer time model, and am happy to click on their ads anywhere I see them because… well, do you remember what ads were like before Google? Totally irrelevant (aka untargeted)! And all this not to mention that they’ve actually been at the forefront of redefining privacy on the web (personal privacy against algorithms, user-identifiable patterns, the whole China thing?!) and creating products that improve worldwide productivity (free Google API, free Google Apps, free – Oh I could go on forever). Google would be my number one if it weren’t for one thing, and that thing is…
First Place: Microsoft (especially Microsoft Research)
Pretty much everyone uses or has used Microsoft products, whether it’s Windows, Office, or Internet Explorer. Microsoft products are and have been pervasive throughout modern life, and for good reason. What puts Microsoft at first place is not just the high quality of its innovations, but the incredible quantity and diversity, ranging from deep computer systems (Hyper-V hardware-assisted virtualization), to the best software development platform that has ever existed (the .NET framework), all the way to the motion-reading technology that operates the Kinect. And that’s only what Microsoft has chosen to publish. What’s unfathomably impressive is all that goes on behind the scenes at Microsoft Research. With labs all around the world and projects spanning from visual programming languages to automatically generating collages to mapping astronomical data, Microsoft Research has been quietly preparing humanity for a better future. This is true beauty of innovation: bringing diverse and challenging ideas into a reality, and creating the future as we will know it.