Garage open to Microsoft employees to park and share ideas

The top technology companies are continuously trying to stay ahead of the game

"Fast-growth companies must keep innovating. Companies are like sharks. If they stop moving, they die." That's according to Salesforce. com chief executive Mark Benioff, and it's something he obviously lives by. Last year, his cloud computing business was named the world's most innovative company by Forbes magazine.

But if the opinion of a billion dollar company director is not enough, the OECD – the international organisation which helps governments tackle the economic, social and governance challenges of a globalised economy, also stresses the importance of innovation.

It says, as a general rule of thumb, that companies which fail to replace 10 per cent of their revenue stream annually through innovative new products are likely to be out of business in five years, unless they are simply suppliers of products like cement.

Proof that companies can succumb to the very technological innovations they had pioneered can be seen in the story of Polaroid, which once led the camera industry.

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The company became enamoured with their in-house technology and chose not to explore the emerging field of digital photography.

While its initial concept of instant photography was a real innovation, that innovation later died, with the company failing to adapt to changing technology trends.

The very same nearly happened Research In Motion’s BlackBerry. In 2008, the smartphone pioneer was the kingpin in the mobile-phone industry. BlackBerry had a valuation of $80 billion that year, the same year it began self-destructing. It took just three years, to all but demolish the once venerable brand, wiping out tens of billions in shareholder value.

However, the companies that have innovated have turned themselves around. A case in point is Nintendo, which is today considered one of the world's most powerful brands.

After Sony and Microsoft kicked the Mario out of Nintendo's GameCube in the 2001 console war, the Japanese consumer electronics company went back to the drawing board.


The Wii system
The resulting innovation was the Wii system, with its intuitive motion-sensitive controller and interactive games. By 2007, the Wii was outselling both the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.

The top technology companies today are wary of having similar fates to Polaroid. Google, Nokia, Samsung, Apple and Microsoft are continuously trying to stay ahead of the game, developing new breakthroughs, and creating technologies which are innovative and valuable.

While these companies are already at the top of their game in many areas, they know this can be lost easily if they don’t innovate.

However, innovation is not just about professional research and development. Companies are also looking more and more to employees and grassroots innovation.

In an effort to keep the pipeline of innovation going, Google encourages its engineers to dedicate 20 per cent of their work time to side projects, an initiative which gave birth to Gmail and Google Earth.

Siemens runs an "Inventor of the Year" competition, to encourage employees to create inventions which have great technological and economic significance for the company.


Crowdsource innovation
Online movie service Netflix decided to crowdsource its innovation, by offering a $1 million price for algorithm that could best predict consumers' movie preferences. The company received entries from more than 50,000 contestants.

Software giant Microsoft is among the long line of tech companies encouraging and incubating grassroots innovation.

Its innovation initiative is The Garage, a place open to any employee, where collaboration is default, and in which Microsoft encourages free-form, grassroots invention.

The Garage provides pizza and beers for brainstorming sessions, and allows workers access to soldering guns, 3-D printers and laser cutters.

It also provides support through Garage Weeks, Science Fairs and access to a worldwide community to help employees build things they wouldn't be able to do alone.

Successful innovation
One successful innovation that has already come out of The Garage is the Forgotten Attachment Detector, a creation which is now part of Microsoft Outlook 2013. Everyone has had that moment in email – when they hit send and before realising a particular document or file was not attached.

Software engineer Bhavesh Chauhan has eliminated the chances of this happening, with the help of his fellow Microsoft employees through The Garage. The Detector reviews your email message before it is sent to make sure that if you've mentioned an attachment, there actually is one.

Another innovation coming out of The Garage is Stinkybad, which allows internet users to communicate links to each other easily. People can communicate links via phone, radio or television without having to remember long URLs.

The link is pasted into Stinkybad which generates a word associated with it. Once the word is communicated, the person who receives it types it into Stinkybad and the original link appears.

Nouns expire quickly as they are meant for fast sharing. That way common words don’t get locked up.

If users such as businesses want to keep a particular word in use for longer, they can pay a fee.

Another graduate of The Garage is Snapshare – an anonymous, on-the-go photo-sharing app.

Share a photo
The fast and secure photo-sharing solution allows users to share a photo with someone without revealing contact information or personal data. "You might have just met someone and don't want them having your e-mail address or phone number. You could be at a party where you make new friends you want to share photos with, but you don't want them having your number," creator Allan Askar says.

Microsoft believes this harnessing of employee’s intellectual potential will help the company stay relevant, something more important now than ever, as the company transitions to being a devices and services company.