Sunday, November 14, 2004

Searching For Stupidity

While most organizations are in search of Excellence, it is perhaps more instructive to learn from Stupidity. After all, it's the flameouts, snafus and 'Himalayan blunders' that make the difference between being on top and not.

Merrill Chapman's In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters anecdotally tells of high-tech marketing disasters, and in the telling, covers the fabulous history of information technology, from SoftRAM to WebVan.

Talking about "In Search Of Excellence", he notes that
Most of In Search of Excellence ... functions as the corporate equivalent of the Kama Sutra...America's affair with excellence seems endless...Yet, despite all the talking, walking, and communicating, high-tech firms kept doing stupid things. Again and again and again.
He also points out that the book was intended as a balm for the wounded American corporate ego after the Japanese successes of the 1980s, and featured only American companies, many of which later flamed out, although the obsession with excellence never did.

This book is intended as a riposte to Excellence, besides a personalized history of technology. Several ancedotes stand out, including why CP/M never made it as the operating system for the IBM PC (think pricing: $240 vs $40), the demise of the video gaming industry in the 1980s (E.T.) and

He goes looking for idiocy in high places, and finds it. He remembers the TI99/4A, a home computing system that
  • Was shipped with no way to write software for it
  • Threatened publishers who did figure out how to write software for it
  • Hid the existence of a built-in language to write software
  • Provided no storage system
  • Lost $50 per unit shipped

The misadventures of MicroPro and the demise of WordStar are lovingly detailed, the author having been product manager at MicroPro, including the signal idiocy to provide two versions of the same software with the same name, yet different markets and probably the first use of 2000 in a product name with WordStar 2000 in 1984.

Comparing the lists of the top ten software publishers from 1984 and 2001, he notes the only commonality is Microsoft. He postulates the point, possibly considered establishmentarian by some, that they were the only ones not to make a fatal mistake. A chapter is dedicated to debunking various myths about Microsoft, including poor quality and market monopolies, assigning the success of Microsoft to Zen-like marketing.

The centerpiece of the book is a collection of dated advertisements for equally dated computer products. My favorite is the one for OS/2 warp, intoning "The Borg is here", perhaps ungrammatically.

Other books have studied the success of some companies and the failure of others, notably Good To Great by Jim Collins and The Innovator's Solution by Clayton Christensen. All dwell on the disprutive nature of success and the inability to stay successful. Rarely, though does a book use stupidity as a measure of success. It is surprising how now-ancient events have a strangely familiar ring, but then people don't really learn from their mistakes and stupidity, do they?

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