In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters

Posted on by Ben Rothke

In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters is a highly insightful and humorous book. 

In Search of Stupidity gets its title from the classic, albeit infamous business book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies, by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. In Search of Excellence quickly became a best-seller when it came out in 1988 and launched a new era of management consultants and business books. But in 2001, Peters admitted that he falsified the underlying data. Librarians have been slow to move the book to the fiction section. 

In Search of Stupidity is not a traditional business book; rather, it's a high-level analysis of marketing mistakes made by some of the biggest and most well-known high-tech companies over the last 20 years. The book contains numerous stories of somewhat smart companies that have made stupid marketing mistakes. The catastrophe is that these mistakes have led to the demise of many of these companies. 

For those who have been in technology for a while, the book will be a somewhat nostalgic look at what has happened over the years from the world of high-tech marketing. Combined with Chapman's often hilarious observations, the book is a most enjoyable and fascinating read and is hard to put down once you start. 

The first chapters of the book discuss the story and mythology around the origins of DOS. It details such luminaries as Digital Research, IBM, Microsoft, Bill Gates and Gary Kildall and more. The first myth about Microsoft is the presumption that the original contract with IBM for MS-DOS gave Microsoft an immediate and unfair advantage over its competitors. The reality is that over time, MS-DOS did indeed become Microsoft's cash cow; but it took the idiocy of Apple, IBM and others to make this happen. 

The book also notes that throughout its history, Microsoft would consistently make the most of its competitor's mistakes and stupidity to its advantage. The book repeatedly notes that yes, Microsoft has not always been ethical or nice; but the reality is that such behavior has also been practiced by many in the software industry. Not that it rationalizes what Microsoft has done, and to a degree still does. But it is unfair to pinpoint Microsoft as the sole miscreant in the dirty software waters.

For the better part of the last decade, Microsoft has owned the desktop. But that was not always the case. In the early 1990's IBM was frantically working on its nascent OS/2 operating system, working alongside Microsoft as a trusted partner. IBM had the cash and talent to ensure that OS/2 would own the desktop. So why did OS/2 miserably fail? It was primarily IBM's own ineptitude in marketing OS/2 which led to Windows 95 taking over the desktop. The desktop was IBM's to lose and that is precisely what it did. 

Microsoft at one point was working with IBM to develop OS/2 and many have written that Microsoft took advantage of IBM in that joint effort. But Chapman writes that complete and direct responsibility for the failure of OS/2 falls completely on IBM. He notes that it is difficult to find a marketing mistake around OS/2 that IBM did not make. At the time, the market was ready to accept almost any GUI and it was Microsoft that gave the people what they wanted. It was not so much that Microsoft beat IBM; rather that IBM imploded with OS/2 and Microsoft was there to pick up the pieces. 

As to ownership of the desktop, Chapman notes that even with Microsoft's near endless budget, bullying tactics, and use of the FUD factor, those alone did not enable Microsoft to monopolize the desktop operating system market. Chapman notes that the following key factors, all which are unrelated and out of Microsoft's control had to take place in order for that to happen. 

First, Xerox, the original inventor of the GUI had to never develop a clue about how to commercialize the groundbreaking product that came out of its own labs. Digital Research then had to blow off IBM when it came calling to them for an operating systems for the original IBM PC. IBM would then have to fall victim to Microsoft during its joint development of OS/2. 

Finally, Apple would have to decide not to license the Macintosh operating system. That decision led Apple to have a 30% share of the desktop market in the early 1990's to its current irrelevant 4% share. 

Chapman lists numerous secondary factors that also contributed to Microsoft's dominance. While the accepted wisdom is that Microsoft single-handedly cornered the desktop operating system market; the reality is that the ultimate success of Microsoft is as much a result of their near endless good luck combined with the recurring stupidity of its competition. 

The stupidity of IBM and Apple gave the desktop market to Microsoft. Similarly, Novell gave the NOS market to them. In the mid-1990's, Novell owned the NOS market. Netware along with myriad CNE's (Certified Network Engineers were the dominant force in network computing. When Windows NT version 3.1 shipped (it was really version 1.0), it was clearly inferior to Netware, as myriad product reviews stated. 

Yet a few years later, Windows NT was the dominant NOS and Novell was struggling. While Netware was clearly superior to NT from a functionality perspective, the genius of Microsoft was that it knew better how to deal and communicate with its development community. Today, Netware is an irrelevant NOS and Novell has effectively abandoned it to primarily focus on its Linux strategy. 

Exactly at the same time Microsoft was pushing Windows NT and wooing developers, Novell shutdown its third-party development center in Austin, TX. Novell also became preoccupied with its misguided purchase of WordPerfect. Novell developers were left hanging until Microsoft came calling with its promises of NT development and marketing support. Similarly, it was Novell failures that directly lead to the success of Windows NT. 

Novell had myriad chances to decimate Windows, but it never stepped up to the plate. Novell's inexperienced marketing department thought that "if you built a great NOS, they would come." But come they did not, and leave Netware they did. 

It is chapter 10 that will likely give Slashdot readers a fit. The author attempts to set straight additional myths around Microsoft: that their products are of poor quality, that they have only succeeded because of its market monopolies, that they are not innovative, and more. For those who want all of the details, they should read the book. But the authors notes for example that while Microsoft has been widely criticized for not being an innovative company, it is no different from companies such as Lotus, Borland, Xerox and more. 

Most recently, when Microsoft found itself behind the 8-ball and lacking a browser, Internet Explorer was quickly developer and in time, surpassed the capability of Netscape Navigator. By 1998, most reviews were giving IE a higher rating than Navigator. Of course, Microsoft has more cash and developers than Netscape, but that alone was not what doomed them. Simultaneously, Netscape derailed itself in an attempt to completely rewrite Navigator in Java. This led them to the state where they would permanently fall behind Microsoft in the development race. 

The book contains 12 chapters each with a different set of stupid marketing actions. Rather than simply being a Monday morning quarterback, chapter 14 contains an analysis of each scenario and what the respective companies should have done. 

In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters is a most valuable book and is a wonderful read for anyone in the software industry. For those in sales and marketing, it is clearly required reading, and in fact, should be reread periodically. While In Search of Excellence turned out to be a fraud, In Search of Stupidity is genuine, and no names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

Business Perspectives

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