Book Review: In Search of Stupidity

Book Review:
In Search of Stupidity:
Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters

    Merrill R. (Rick) Chapman
    Apress, 2003
    ISBN: 1-59059-104-6

According to Rick Chapman, the modern history of high-tech marketing has been a succession of right decisions made for the wrong reasons, and wrong decisions made for the right reasons. In his "I-was-there" account of the rise and fall of high-tech phenomena such as IBM, Digital Research, MicroPro, Ashton-Tate, Borland, Intel, Motorola, Novell, and a host of dot.bombs, as well as the ascendancy of Microsoft, Chapman finds a common theme: overwhelming, give-your-head-a-shake, mind-numbingly stupid marketing blunders.

To be fair to marketing mavens everywhere, the marketing blunders that Chapman exposes are not merely the product of overheated marketing departments. For a company to be worthy of mention in this book,

    ...it took the combined efforts of personnel in upper management, development, sales and marketing, all fiercely dedicated to ignoring common sense, the blatantly obvious, and the lessons of the past. Major failure doesn't just happen: To achieve it, everyone has to pull together as a team. (223)

The book's title is an obvious parody of In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies, the 1982 business book that made authors Tom Peters and Robert Waterman both famous and wealthy. Twenty years later, after Peters admitted to falsifying data in his book, and after many of the "best-run" companies in the book had gone belly up, Chapman finds a fearful symmetry in their collective failure to understand and abide by market realities.

Even the rise and continuing dominance of Microsoft have not been free of blunders. If Chapman is to be believed, Microsoft's success is due partly to good PR practices, partly to having made fewer blunders than the competition, but also partly to the fact that the competition failed to press the advantage when they had it.

Wrong decision, right reasons

One of Microsoft's greatest "blunders" is a perfect example of doing the wrong thing for the right reason. You may recall that the Internet seemed to take Microsoft by surprise in the mid-90s. Bill Gates just didn't seem to "get it". When Microsoft finally bought into the Internet, Gates was credited with being able to turn his enterprise on a dime and get back into the race. Such was the perception, but the reality was that,

    ...Bill Gates's initial reaction to the Internet was more prescient than people had realized. Microsoft has always been run as a real business that makes real profits, and in 1994 Gates immediately spotted the obvious: None of the Internet "business models" being bandied about described how anyone was going to make any money on the Internet. (176)

Had Microsoft not changed its strategy to take the Internet into account, the IT landscape might be very different today. Gates's initial decision to stay on the margins during the Internet boom was made for all the right reasons, but it was still the wrong decision. It seems being rational is not enough to guarantee success: you also have to live through the irrationality of others. Microsoft may not have sold the emperor his new set of clothes, but it did build him a closet to hang them in.

Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make crazy.

Chapman draws on Charles Mackay's 19th Century study of human folly, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In retrospect, it is very easy to see the Internet boom and bust as merely the latest chapter in a long succession of (tulipo) manias and (South Sea) bubbles. Hindsight is, as they say, 20-20. It is also said that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Chapman's book serves as a useful antidote to high-tech hype and technological optimism. In the world of high-tech, it is wise to remember that even disruptive innovation, such as the Internet, cannot long defy the laws of physics -- or market forces.

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