Simon Willison’s Weblog

Questioning Steve Ballmer

This morning I attended a half day briefing at Microsoft UK entitled “The Online Opportunity—What Makes a Successful Web 2.0 Start-Up?”. Despite the buzzword laden title the event was well worth the trip up from Brighton, mainly due to the Q&A with Steve Ballmer (a pretty rare opportunity).

Of the other speakers my favourite was Brent Hoberman of lastminute.com and more recently mydeco.com. He presented without slides, choosing instead to simply blasting through dozens of lessons he learnt working on lastminute.com, both when it was a plucky startup and once it had morphed in to a large public company. Thankfully Jeremy took copious notes.

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to throw a question at Steve. I considered asking how he planned to lure open source developers (used to controlling their entire stack) back to Microsoft tools, but another question had touched on patents so instead I asked the following (paraphrased):

This event is all about encouraging startups—but one of the biggest problems a startup faces is that it’s almost impossible to invent anything without violating someone’s patent. Big companies can use their patent portfolios to defend themselves, but small companies have no way to fight back. It’s kind of like the Cold War.

Here are the points I can remember from Steve’s answer:

  • The patent system (in the US) was designed for the industrial revolution and altered once to deal with the pharmaceutical industry. It hasn’t yet been updated for software, but some kind of change is obviously needed. That said, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water—patents are still needed to encourage innovation in both large and small companies.
  • At the moment, it’s hard to say if small or big companies benefit most. Steve thinks it’s actually the smaller companies—it’s rare for a big company to crush a small company with a patent, but you often hear about small companies with a patent and nothing to lose going after the big guys.
  • Microsoft are lobbying for patent reform both in the US and the European Union.

About half way through Steve’s talk the current favourite Microsoft demos got an airing: Popfly (a mashup editor written in Silverlight, reminiscent of Yahoo! Pipes), Seadragon and the awesome Photosynth. I hadn’t realised Photosynth was actually available for regular people to play with, although my attempts at getting it working with Parallels on my Mac have sadly failed.