Book Review: In Search of Stupidity

15 01 2007

1590597214.01._AA_SCMZZZZZZZ_V39338621_.jpgIn Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters, Second Edition (Paperback) by Merrill R. (Rick) Chapman.

This is the second edition of Merril R. Chapman’s best-seller In Search of Stupidity. To the first edition’s collection of episodes of strategic blunders, marketing disasters and outright hubris on part of various high-technology companies during the 80’s and the 90’s, the new edition adds a few notable episodes. Companies listed include: IBM, Digital Research, Apple, Microsoft, MicroPro, Ashton-Tate, Siebel, Borland, Intel, Motorola, Google, Novell, Netscape, and various dot-coms from the Internet bubble times.

Apart from being a fun and enjoyable read, In Search of Stupidity is also a valuable resource for high-tech entrepreneurs, marketers and geeks wanting to turn their technical prowess into a profit. There’s nothing like learning from the mistakes of others in order to avoid repeating them, and one of the merits of this book is that it does not limit itself to making fun of clueless companies, but extracts and digests from their tales a number of immediately useful advice.

So you can expect to learn how to avoid the same sort of positioning mistakes that doomed MicroPro, how not to inimicate the developer community that constitutes the lifeblood of your products, like Ashton-Tate constantly did, how to avoid damaging your relationships with the press, and many other useful tidbits. In this respect, the Stupid Analysis chapter at the end of the book is especially useful, in case you missed some of the more subtle lessons that were contained in the narrative presented in previous chapters.

In summary, this books is valuable both to entrepreneurs and managers, and to geeks who want to enter marketing, management or start their own company. Even if you are content with keeping a purely technical role, should you start recognizing the signs of stupidity on part of your company, you could at least be prepared to polish up your resume.

To be honest, it could be argued that some of the most egregious screw-ups described in the book were, at least in part, due to sheer bad luck, and that hindsight is always 20/20. Still I think that the stories told here teach some extremely valuable lessons. External circumstances alone cannot account for all that happened; it takes much stupidity and arrogance to turn unfavorable events into total disasters.

If you want to be picky, there is a couple of instances where the message of the book sounds a bit off. The first one can be found in the story of Google’s fight with CNET.com over the issue of privacy, and its supposed bowing to the censorship imposed by the Chinese government. You can argue how much you like that Google acted stupidly in these circumstances. Its behavior might have tarnished its ethical image—”Don’t be evil”, remember?. However, it doesn’t seem to have affected Google in any serious way; few people remember the episodes and Google is going as strong as ever. Compared to the other examples found in the book, this is a case of very mild stupidity, if at all, and it looks like Chapman seriously wanted to pick on Google but couldn’t find any real damning evidence.

The second point is in chapter 12, The Strange Case of Dr. Open and Mr. Proprietary, where the author traces the beginnings of the Free Software movement to the first hackers who started out by illegally copying Microsoft’s Altair BASIC. If one didn’t know better, one might start to think that Free Software pioneers were just a bunch of freeloaders, if not thieves. In the rest of the chapter, however, Chapman makes it abundantly clear that the only example of stupidity, in this case, can be found on the side of proprietary companies who failed to understand the Open Source/Free Software movement and its effect on the software industry.

To sum it up, In Search of Stupidity is a very good book, especially if you missed the first edition. Five stars are well deserved.

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One response

3 06 2007
Johnny

not particularly to this entry. it seems to me you are pretty well-read as i have surfed you blog for a while. I hope to know how to get the best out of readings (esp. novels)? could you please give me a little guidances and suggestions if you don’t mind.

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