While I was at Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference last month, I finished Merrill R. Chapman’s book In Search of Stupidity. In the book, from the perspective of an insider, he lays out the mistakes other companies have made to contribute inadvertently to the dominance of Microsoft. While our views differ as to how significant some blunders were in certain cases, in general Chapman does a good job documenting why many of these companies failed and why Microsoft succeeded.
To net it out, companies like Novell and Ashton Tate made incredibly stupid mistakes and, while Microsoft wasn’t perfect, the company’s mistakes (up until the last DOJ trial) were simply not that bad or were quickly corrected. The book is an easy and entertaining read, and I recommend it highly, particularly because I’m seeing a repetition of some of the same avoidable mistakes today.
For instance, the lead attorney on the Microsoft trial, the one who was incredibly effective at tricking Microsoft — especially Bill Gates — into destroying Microsoft’s favorable public image, is now pointed right at the heart of Linux and open-source software and apparently is using the same tactics.
Emotional Decisions = Mistakes
One thing that isn’t spelled out in Chapman’s book but weaves its way through it is that customers often make decisions from the heart and not from the head, abandoning a platform before needing to do so and simply switching from one group of problems to another as a result.
This impulse was very pronounced among several companies I spoke with that had switched from HP to Dell last year. Dell was better in some areas but worse in others, and the net effect was a migration cost that many could have avoided.
I’ve looked at some of the problems associated with the Linux and Apple platforms and have come to the conclusion that neither is necessarily better than Windows — but both are decidedly different. This difference can be problematic for Windows experts because, in switching to a different platform, they likely won’t even know to look for these problems until they can’t be avoided.
No Platform Is Perfect
In looking at the support sites, you can quickly see that neither Linux nor Apple is perfect. For instance, in Apple’s new Panther, the file finder still performs horribly. Also, Firewire drives apparently delete files, there are bugs in the new version of QuickTime, flaws in the security-patch methodology and a general feeling that a new operating system that is mostly bug fixes for the old one should be free. Now, where have I heard that before?
For Linux, I’ve covered its problem issues elsewhere — and I don’t need the barrage of e-mail that would result from covering those problems again here.
The support sites for these operating systems often showcase the “grass is greener” attitude that can cause buyers to skip due diligence and make jumps to new platforms and technologies largely because they believe it can’t be as bad on the other side. Of course, they often find that not only can it be as bad, but it can be worse.
Now, I’m not saying it will always be worse, only that it might be and that it’s a good idea to look first before jumping to another platform.
Client-Server Problems of the 1980s
IT managers adopted client-server technology long before they were ready and did not therefore realize that they needed to understand the shortcomings of these new platforms to avoid bungling the deployments. While it took nearly a decade for people to admit what abysmal failures most of these projects became, the adverse impact on the businesses where they occurred was, at least internally, pronounced and immediate.
With the market recovering, once again we will be able to measure the speed with which one company takes advantage of emerging opportunities and others do not. Just like the IT department that found itself unemployed as a result of an Apple migration, the executive staff is incredibly intolerant of poorly founded critical decisions.
What I’ve also noticed is that the massive buzz — much like it was in the 1980s — emphasizes the benefits of the new and different platform while ignoring the benefits of the existing platform. Meanwhile, the subtext was, and is, that people really were trying to divorce themselves from the entrenched vendor (IBM then, Microsoft now).
Having worked at IBM during that time, I was amazed at how quickly we went from a company that was seen as the safe haven — you never got fired for choosing IBM — to the company that was anything but safe.
Comparing IBM’s Image Problems to Microsoft’s
During my last year at IBM, I spent most of my time researching, mainly through interviews, what had happened to turn IBM from a company that was revered to a company that was hated. It was cathartic for me, and by the time I was done, I’d learned a great deal.
I see a parallel to my experience with IBM in Microsoft, and I have to admit I identify with the folks at Microsoft who are trying to fix that company’s reputation but are getting little credit for their attempt. I had dinner with the head of Microsoft Research during the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) and was reminded just how wonderful some of these folks can be. There is a group of executives at Microsoft who are referred to as “real,” caring more for their employees and for doing what is right than for their careers or their stock options.
What In Search of Stupidity and these PDC experiences reminded me was that Microsoft is unique in that it is a successful company of programmers run by programmers. Even though the company doesn’t believe in the financial benefits of open-source software — and it is in good company — many do believe in the other aspects of the open-source community, including collaboration and code sharing. These people are working to implement policies and develop tools that will enable these activities.
It is clear that Microsoft now understands the security exposures. Granted, that understanding has come a little late, but that’s likely because programmers often focus on cool features and often think security is just something they need to overcome rather than enhance. The company also is listening to customers like never before. However, if all they hear is “you suck,” then they will eventually become jaded and frustrated — much like I was at IBM — by the fact that they get little credit for any positive changes they make.
Companies Are Like People
We form our impressions of companies much as we form impressions of people. The manager we hate at work might actually be a critical defender when our job is put at risk. That nasty cop who writes us a ticket just might have saved the life of a small child at great personal risk the day before. That jerk neighbor next door might be the one person who comes to your aid during a fire or other crisis — a phenomenon a lot of folks here in California discovered recently.
You’ll likely also find — as I did a few years ago — that if you need the company, there is a good chance Microsoft will cover your butt if you’ve built a relationship with the company. I know of no vendor that will cover your butt if you don’t.
I’ve observed or experienced all of this personally, and these experiences, particularly the one with IBM, form the foundation of my suggestion that if you are basing most of your decision to migrate to another platform on a belief that Microsoft — or any vendor, for that matter — is evil, then you should challenge this belief before you make your decision.
Maybe it would be better to try to fix the relationship first. Just because the water looks nice doesn’t mean you should jump right in.
Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a company founded on the concept of providing a unique perspective on personal technology products and trends.