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Sowing seeds of innovation: Microsoft's Brett Roberts

Posted on 24-Dec-2006 09:09 by M Freitas | Filed under: Articles

Sowing seeds of innovation: Microsoft's Brett Roberts
Microsoft New Zealand has a director in charge of innovation, which is a curious role. To find out what it entails, I talked to the man in question: Brett Roberts, Microsoft New Zealand Director of Innovation.

What kind of credentials does a Director of Innovation have? Before joining Microsoft, Brett spent thirteen years as an Avionics Engineer at Air New Zealand, after obtaining a diploma in Business Information Systems from Auckland University. He went on to a flight operations role at Air NZ, specialising in aerodynamic and route analysis, including working on Boeing 747, 767 and 737 flight simulators. Working as a software developer at Clear Communications (now TelstraClear) rounded off Brett's ICT experience before heading to Microsoft New Zealand.

The Director of Innovation is unique to Microsoft New Zealand role, Brett says. "I am not not out there to to create new products, but to seed an internal culture of innovation. It's a role about customers and partners." he says when asked to summarise the job.

Part of the job is to help Microsoft and its partners to spot and ride the wave of opportunities as they appear. Exploring new channel strategies is another, and Brett also works on establishing long term arrangements with partners.

One of his areas of interest is "building capability in the local market". This sounds like one of those management buzz phrases, but Brett explains that it involves amongst other things helping New Zealand schools build infrastructure, develop curricula, and improve teachers' skills.

Concrete examples of Brett's "capability building" include the School Days events at the TechEd conference where students are shown new technologies. Another programme is called Partners in Learning and is specific to New Zealand. Partners in Learning is developed in partnership with the Ministry of Education (MOE), with the aim of supporting professional development of New Zealand teachers in the use of information and communication technology.

Brett's job also involves sticking his head into "hornet nests" and talking to Free and Open Source Software developers and advocates who in some cases fiercely oppose just about everything Microsoft does.

The way Brett sees it, Microsoft does not compete with Open Source, but instead with products generated from Open Source. Microsoft is in actual fact trying to build bridges to the Open Source movement, through various initiatives. One such effort is the Port 25 site, which was set up to help Microsoft to better understand the Open Source world and the communities and people involved in it.

At Port 25, Microsoft and Open Source luminaries like Bill Hilf and Miguel de Icaza (of Mono and Gnome fame) get together for a free and open discussion. Microsoft has also had the Firefox developers around to Redmond, as it recognises the competing browser's importance to Windows users and want to ensure it works well.

Locally, Brett has done a series of presentations to the New Zealand Linux User Group and engagements with other Linux User Groups after the Novell agreement was announced. While in some Open Source circles, the Microsoft/Novell deal is seen as controversial, Brett he has yet to meet a customer who doesnít like it. What negative feedback Brett has received on the Novell deal is based on confusion and misunderstanding - ďItís a good thing for customersĒ, he says, as interoperability between Linux and Windows is becoming increasingly important.

Does that mean Microsoft no longer sees Linux as the enemy then? Well, says Brett, Novell and Microsoft will still compete vigorously against one another, but Redmond realises that Linux has grown up and will be part of enterprise ICT solutions for the foreseeable future - hence the need for interoperability.

The next six months will bring further work on interoperability, Brett says and mentions agreements with Sun for JBoss as one example of what's happening currently.

We'd be remiss if we didn't ask Brett about Windows Vista, the long-anticipated new operating system from Microsoft that launched earlier this year after five years of gestation. Despite the long development process, Vista has met with a mixed bag of opinions. Why is that?

It's a chicken and egg thing: Brett believes most people who comment on Vista havenít used it yet, and suggest people wait for a more wide adoption of the new operating system.

As with the last radically different operating system launch, Windows 95, consumers will be key to push Windows Vista adoption in the enterprise Brett says. Even so, Brett says Vista adoption may require companies to rethink their infrastructure. Many companies will find hard to adopt Windows Vista, but this holds true for other technologies as well.

Corporate notebook users are likely to be the early enterprise adopters, Brett says. "Windows Vista will first appear on Enterprise on portable computers. Mobile devices will see the quicker adoption of Vista for practical reasons: you get better battery life and features such as BitLocker encryption for business security. In my view we will see faster Windows Vista adoption than Windows XP."

Microsoft is also embracing the social web that is currently expanding at breakneck pace. Corporate blogging for instance is one way companies can directly communicate with customers, and offer advantages of existing information channels. However, Brett warns that in order for it work, companies must take blogging seriously and make sure the content meets readers' expectations: "blogging is important if you have something to say on an ongoing basis. Keep the communication channel open and commit to the blog is my recommendation. Keep feeding the channel, otherwise the value of the blog diminishes rapidly."

Communication is an often-neglected part of most businesses, and companies must embrace it to succeed Brett says. Too few do so now, but he hopes this will change in the future.

What can we expect in the future in terms of innovation? Brett says people should keep an eye at, where over a thousand researchers present their work.

Microsoft is investing heavily in R&D and some of the things on display on its research site may turn into products in five years - or never take off. Seeing how researchers explore often non-obvious routes is fascinating though, Brett says, and points to his current favourite "toy", Photosynth.

The Photosynth project is an amalgamation of Redmond's own photo research project and technology from Sea Dragon, a company recently acquired by Microsoft. Itís the first attempt to create a unique view of raw photographic material out there on photo sites and private collections. The software takes a large collection of photos of a place or an object, analyses them for similarities, and then displays the photos in a reconstructed three-dimensional space, showing you how each one relates to the next.

While the practical use of Photosynth isn't at this stage readily apparent, it shows a different Microsoft to what people perhaps assume - a company committed to innovation and development of ideas.