An Analyst's Ad Hominem Hell
Apr 2, 2012 5:00 AM PT
I clearly hit a nerve last week when I compared Meg Whitman's moves at HP to Tim Cook's at Apple. I do sincerely think Tim Cook was set up to fail. Steve Jobs didn't hire Cook to replace him -- he hired him to do the jobs he didn't want to do. This is why a lot of great companies slide. The existing CEOs see replacement candidates as rivals, so they make sure they don't have the skills or otherwise can't do the CEO's job.
I would argue Cook was safe at Apple because Jobs never saw him as a threat. Recall that Cook's last big hire before Jobs died was Mark Papermaster, whom Jobs fired almost immediately. That was certainly not the biggest show of support for Cook's decision-making skills. The fact that Jobs fired Papermaster -- not Cook -- suggests the move was meant to put Cook in his place as Jobs' aide and no more.
Apart from that, let's assume that Whitman is doing some things right and Cook some things wrong. Whitman was well regarded at eBay and appears competent. Given that Jobs was viewed as the CEO of the decade last year, it's arguable that anyone else might seem wanting in his shadow. So why did people seem to get so upset by my earlier piece and drift (as you can see from the comments at the bottom) almost immediately to personal attack?
I'll suggest why some Apple fans can't debate Apple issues maturely and then close with my product of the week. Ironically, it's an Apple product.
At Least SlashGear Didn't Call Me a DickHead
SlashGear's Chris Burns takes me to task in what he promotes as a point-to-point rebuttal but in reality is a poorly veiled ad hominem attack. Don't get me wrong -- ad hominem attacks can be very effective. However, they don't get to the heart of the issue because this method of argumentation is designed to discredit and thus negate the other side's argument. The subset is circumstantial ad hominem, and this class of attack is considered unethical. The thing is, if there really is a problem, you won't find it this way.
Ad hominem attacks are most often used in politics, but my first experience with this was unfortunately with my own grandfather. We were arguing the merits of a nuclear power plant on the coast of California (I was con) and he argued that at 12, I simply didn't have the experience to understand the issues. I should point out the plant was closed at a massive loss, so there! (I'm channeling my 12-year-old self).
Burns' primary ad hominem attack is based on his belief that I am on the HP Advisory Council and thus biased for Whitman and against Cook. The nature of any two sides in an argument is that they are likely biased in favor of the argument they are making -- otherwise, they'd likely be on the other side. Wouldn't it be a bigger problem if I were biased against HP while arguing for Whitman? Wouldn't that make me dishonest?
Regardless of bias, the initial focus shouldn't be on my background but on whether my evidence is valid. In point of fact, HP hasn't had an advisory council that I know of for about a decade. That is an easy counter, but a good chunk of time is wasted on me, as I'm not CEO of either firm.
Burns then points to HP's mistakes but loses track of timing and authority. Virtually all of the ones he initially lists took place either before Whitman came on board or under Todd Bradley (the guy who runs the Personal Technology Division and wanted the CEO job for himself), which would be consistent with my position that Bradley, not Whitman, is a problem. That is either just poor homework or Burns is intentionally being disingenuous. (His own timeline shows she joined in September even though he points to problems in August).
Now the thing is that Cook will benefit for some time from Jobs' excellent management of Apple, and Whitman will suffer from the mess she was given. It's clear that Apple has been doing better than HP, a point I acknowledged. However, I argued that both companies' performances so far have been due largely to the CEOs who used to run them. Even though Cook was COO, we know that Jobs was a micromanager. Whitman wasn't even at HP in a line role until September.
Most of the rest of Burns' rebuttal seems to be mostly random examples of how much better Apple is than HP at the moment and far from anything I argued. They are facts, but Apple being in a better position than HP today wasn't in dispute. This isn't to say he didn't make some solid points -- like Cook defending himself as Jobs' replacement -- but that would have been far more credible coming from Jobs. We always think we are doing a great job; my point was whether that was why Jobs selected him.
Granted, Burns' response was more mature than most of the comments I drew, and Daring Fireball John Gruber just took a shortcut and called me a "Dick Head." This is an ad hominem abusive attack, often used by people who are mentally infirm.
By the way, there is a fascinating post on how to deal with emotionally challenged people who resort to name calling. It is worth reading. Basically, it says that folks who do this have regressed to a condition in which logical discussion is beyond them, so attempting it is pointless. By name calling, they are admitting their adversary's superiority. There is a joke -- or example -- in there someplace.
My Argument in Brief
Now recall that Apple was in decline until Steve Jobs took over -- and for a while after -- and the new Apple was modeled after Sony, which currently is a bit of a train wreck. It's undisputed that Steve Jobs was CEO of the century, which means he was the best there was in his time. It's known that he was a micromanager. I would argue the majority of those who followed Apple thought Steve was irreplaceable there.
Add to this that Apple has been trading above virtually any other company in the world, and it shouldn't be hard to connect the dots and suggest that a guy who was hired from the logistics side at Compaq and made into a COO -- don't get me wrong, he was an excellent COO -- wouldn't be the lead candidate for next CEO of the decade. To stay on top of the world, Apple requires that level of excellence.
Now I never said Apple would fail -- only that initial moves tied directly to Cook (rather than to Jobs) suggested a decline. I never said HP was going to beat Apple, but that the firms were on different trajectories.
Conversely, Whitman -- who is competent and successful as a CEO (not a politician) -- has moved into a company that was poorly run. Recognizing her ability to improve HP, which had been largely rudderless, shouldn't be a stretch either.
Make it any company: You pop out a Super CEO who didn't delegate well and pop in a COO who was used to being micromanaged, or you pop out a CEO who can't execute and replace him with one who can, and the odds should favor the outcomes I suggested. However, I'm constantly fascinated that folks, rather than even acknowledging historical outcomes, get defensive and move to ad hominem attacks -- or just get really nasty.
So why can't folks see it? And why do they resort to ad hominem attacks in order to avoid discussing the real issues? With recent events like Apple almost getting knocked out of Australia for misleading customers, I just think there is at least merit in the argument that the new Apple isn't performing to the old Apple's standards.
Wrapping Up: Argumentative Theory and Status
This takes us back to a common theme of mine this year: We are hardwired to make mistakes. It is called "argumentative theory," and if you learn it, you'll not only be happier but also make fewer mistakes. You see, we are hardwired to defend positions we have already taken because having folks believe we are right increases how we perceive our status.
No, it doesn't really do squat for real status, because if we are wrong, the other side thinks we have a screw loose, but in our head we have plugged our ears and locked into the belief that our argument won the day.
This is exacerbated with Apple products because people connect them with status. They line up to get the products first, even though they know they'll likely have bugs, or the store may run out, in order to buy the status associated with being first to own the new gadget.
What is funny is that folks who aren't in line generally look at this behavior as foolish, and if these Apple line-sitters see lines for something they don't connect to status, they likely think their counterparts are just as foolish.
So, to be clear, I'm not competing with you for women or income, I'm not trying to take your status for my own, and I actually like Apple and want it to succeed. I just think it is fascinating that people who once thought Steve Jobs was irreplaceable now seem to think he is anything but -- and aren't even aware that this makes them wrong, because those positions are mutually exclusive.
I think Whitman is making some great first moves and is unlikely to repeat Carly Fiorina's mistakes. I think Cook is the wrong guy for the job -- just as I think Steve Ballmer was the wrong guy to run Microsoft. I think either could run other companies better, but they are simply not ideal for the firms they are running. Neither is slacking or taking advantage -- it is purely a skills issue. Microsoft's last 10 years likely showcases what is in Apple's future.
Product of the Week: Apple's AirPort Extreme
I get a lot of complaints about Apple products and connectivity. Apple actually went to IBM to fix the antenna in the iPhone 4S and there haven't been that many complaints about that product since. With iPads and iMacs, wireless connectivity apparently wasn't a focus area. However, the folks I don't get complaints from are those who have Apple's AirPort Extreme. (Be aware Cnet thinks the Asus RT-N56U, which I haven't tested, is better).
I've even spoken to Cisco engineers who tell me they use this Apple router in their homes, because in the home and small business market, it is the best by far regardless of what you connect to it, but especially with iPads. Even the hot (pun intended) new iPad.
I find it rather humorous that Apple is not in the networking space but actually makes what appears to be the best home networking product, but even Apple fans don't appear to know this. Apple likely doesn't market this thing because people would never believe Apple made the best wireless router. Apparently it might -- and that is why the Apple's AirPort Extreme is my Product of the Week.
Oh, and by the way, April 1 was Alfred E. Neuman's 12th birthday. Happy birthday, Alfred!