Innovating Product Extensions using Contests

What happens when you want some Innovative extensions for your product? It is easy. Create a contest, offer some great incentives (like money and fame). Two of the most popular shows on TV, "The American Idol" and "The American Inventor" do it already. Software companies like Google have used this to attract and recruit smart people.

While looking at my InfoMinder alerts, I found this post, which led me to an innovative contest from Microsoft.

Microsoft is challenging developers worldwide to create conversational robots, or BOTs, for MSN® Messenger and Windows Live™ Messenger. The most original, useful robots collect $40,000 in total prizes. Find out more>

The cost to Microsoft, of course is more than the $40,000 they pay in prices. It is also the cost of sifting through various implementations and ranking them. They can probably find an innovative way of recruiting several IM users to judge. I would love to participate.

I hope they make all the ideas and implementations public so that people can try them out. We use IM a lot for developing products. For example this is one usage pattern.

  • During our product development process, we tag portions of text as we chat
  • A program, written by one of our developers, parses the chat text and identifies action items, open questions, feature/design decisions.
  • The program then emails this list to to all the chat participants.

I am sure that there are lots of clever ways people use chats. I would love to collect these in a blog.

How does the company (in this case Microsoft) benefit from these contests?

  1. They get an outside view of various possible extensions to IM.
  2. They encourage experimenting with Innovative Development Tools (for building product extensions)
  3. They get several ideas on their product usage patterns
  4. They discover some cool developers (and companies) with innovative ideas and the capability to implement them.
  5. They get tons of free publicity

In the long term, I think that open contests is one of the best ways of triggering innovation. I already got something out of this contest. Now I know a few development tools for extending Microsoft IM.