Monthly Archives: July 2004

Has Microsoft become IBM of the late 80s?

My essay on whether the Microsoft of today has become the IBM of the late ’80s was just published in ACM Ubiquity.
Unfortunately, Ubiquity used an early version of the essay, and there is at least one factual error: The spray-painting IBM employees were not arrested, they just got in trouble with the SF Dept. of public works. There are some misses in language, and the references didn’t make it – so I will include them here:

  • “Gates flawlessly executed…” see the excellent reportage by Stratford P. Sherman (1984). “Microsoft’s drive to dominate software.” Fortune (January 23): 82-90, an article I give to my students to explain to them why strategy matters.
  • Accidental Empires: Full reference is Cringely, R. X. (1992). Accidental
    Empires: How the boys of Silicon Valley make their millions, battle
    foreign competition, and still can’t get a date
    . Harmonsworth, Middlesex, England, Penguin Books. The title alone is worth it…..
  • …manager from outside… IBM’s new CEO was Lou Gerstner, and his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround. New York, HarperBusiness (2002) is actually rather readable, at least for people with IBM experience – something which you cannot say for most CEO autobiographies.
  • The story of IBM people getting in trouble in San Francisco can be found at
  • Neal Stephenson’s excellent extended essay In the Beginning….Was the Command Line is available as a book, but also free of charge at his Cryptonomicon website.
  • As for the content – I think Microsoft is beginning to turn – their dividend payouts and Windows update policies are signs of maturity. But is it a real change of character?

An American on Norway

Bruce Bawer has an interesting piece in the Hudson review (via Lars Halvorsen) titled Hating America. I disagree with his use of the word “hate” (a bit to strong, I think most Europeans love to hate the USA, they don’t really hate it,) as well as a number of opinions about US foreign policy that he advocates, but it is very interesting to see how he describes Norway and our relationship to the United States. Viewing Norway, he is spot on.
The “American demanding McDonald’s way up in the mountains” story always struck me as a little incongruous, coming as it did during the newspapers’ cucumber season (i.e., the summer slowdown when papers are desperate for news and staffed by interns.) The original piece described a stay at a farm taking in tourists, with some remarks about the churlishness of the owner, which sounded entirely plausible to me. In Norway, willingness to serve the customer is seen as a deficiency of character, a view that is changing, but only slowly (and given the way the economy is going, it will take quite a while before Norwegians will have to.)
P.J.O’Rourke once said that Communism was “been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes.” While flippant, the remark contains more than a little grain of truth. And to all those decrying the boorishness and lack of intellectual curiosity of Americans, I invite them to, say, take a tour of the bookshops of Boston and San Francisco, and then visit similar establishments in Oslo, and check out the selection and conduct a few tests of the quality of the staff. Then sample some museums such as the Metropolitan in NY, the MFA in Boston or (my favorite) the Fogg Museum at Harvard, before trying to get something out of the Norwegian National Gallery (or, for that matter, the Louvre).
Nothing like some data to get your perspectives in line.

Leadership and IT: Invitation to a discussion

One of the perks of straddling the academic/practitioner divide is that sometimes you get to meet, bask in the reflected glory of, and have interesting discussions with luminaries in the same space – sometimes several at once. One such occasion for me is the next Academy of Management conference in New Orleans, where I will proudly lead an All-Academy symposium titled Executive Leadership and Information Technology: A Fragile Dance. (If you happen to be at the conference, it is in the New Orleans Marriott, 10:40am – 12:00am, Monday August 9 2004)
There will be two presenters and two discussants: Presenting the business viewpoint will be James (Jim) Cash, retired professor at the Harvard Business School and now on the board of General Electric and Microsoft (as well as working with the Concours Group). Weighing in for the technology side will be John Seely Brown, former Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and Director or Xerox PARC, and now a celebrated author and speaker on new roles and uses of information technology. The first discussant, from the viewpoint of IT economics and outsourcing, will be Vijay Gurbaxani, professor of IT at UC Irvine. A viewpoint based in strategic leadership processes will be given by Mark Kriger, professor of strategy at the Norwegian School of Management.
The idea with the symposium is to examine the role of information technology and executive leadership in a world of increasingly pervasive and standardized use of technology – or, to be more blunt about it, not discuss whether IT is important or not, but perhaps try to understand why the question even comes up.
Some initial questions I have posed to the presenters are:

  • Can IT and IT use still provide competitive advantage?
  • How is the relationship between IT and executive leadership influenced by
    • Increasing standardization of the technology?
    • Increasing proliferation of the technology?
    • Increasing outsourcing of the technology?
    • Increased consumerization and personal familiarity with the technology?

  • What is the role of IT, both myth and reality, in creating actionable knowledge in organizations?
  • What are the dance steps – the organizational practices and procedures necessary – to make the relationship between business and IT work proceed fluidly and elegantly?

I think this will be a very interesting discussion – and would welcome comments and questions on any of these aspects, the better to sharpen the viewpoints and backgrounds – what do you think of these issues out there? What questions and issues would you see brought up in a discussion on the relationship between IT and strategic leadership?

Dan Bricklin’s 200 year software

Dan Bricklin (one of the inventors of the first PC spreadsheet, Visicalc) has written a very interesting essay entitled “Software That Lasts 200 Years.” He argues that we should take the same approach to software as we do to public infrastructure: Openness, standards, inspection, public inquiries to learn from failures – and not relying on volunteerism alone.
Dan’s writings page is a pleasure to peruse – for instance, he wrote an essay on the future of the music industry in 2002 ago which shaped much of my thinking on the subject – especially the notion that record sales may be down less for downloading than because youngsters were spending their disposable funds on mobile phone services. Enjoy.

Alan Kay and the state of computing

There is an interesting column in Fortune about Alan Kay and how he decries the state of computing (via Slashdot).
I have only met Alan Kay once, in 1989, when he gave a talk at the Norwegian School of Management showing videos of a virtual seabed (with self-guided fish swimming about) and a truly impressive video of his little daughter (still in her diapers) using an Apple Macintosh. She was so small that she had to hold the mouse upside down and use the mouse ball as a trackball.
The opinions of Alan Kay (and I must caution that they are filtered through the columnist, David Kirkpatrick, here) on the state of computing makes me think of a number of things:

  • Every media technology (just remember radio and TV) is seen as a vehicle for education, creativity and human development, and then ends up, at least for a while, as a fairly mundane and seemingly mindless extension for what one did before. For instance, desktop publishing, word processing and email are automations of existing technologies – blogging and wikis are truly new ways of communicating and creating, which take advantage of new attributes of the technology
  • In computers, we have been hampered with the vendors seeming inability to transfer the infrastructurial aspects of one technology generation to another – when the PC came, it didn’t include the good things of the mainframe, when new, user friendly applications come along, they lack the depth and technical strength of prior applications – I just wish the computer science field was better at putting words to its principles, making them simpler to understand and to automatically implement. However, we are getting there – and much of the lack of creativity is really the lack of deep tools
  • When Alan Kay says that companies should be simulating their corporations with computers (or, as my friend Richard Pawson likes to say, every business simulation should have a “Make It So” button), I actually think at least some corporations are doing that. Wal-Mart’s RetailLink, UPS’ and Fedex’s direct interactions with customers, and of course Dell’s pull-based configuration system can be seen as early implementations of this. So can come of the more advanced ERP systems, such as I2. Perhaps. At least they are moving in the right direction.
Things are happening, but too slowly, and Alan Kay, of all people, is certainly the person who has the right to say it.
Time to go and get creative…..

Translation of Cory Doctorow’s speech on DRM to Microsoft Research

Since I liked the speech, can use it in my teaching, and want to show what Creative Commons licensing can do, I decided to translate Cory Doctorow’s speech on DRM to Norwegian (text here).
This is a quick translation – I have not linked it fully, formatting is rather basic, eErrors and omissions are entirely my fault. Of course, everything is always better if read in the original language……
Update July 12: Added lots of explanatory links and fixed quite a few errors – thanks to (among others) Martin Elster.
Update July 13: Replaced text with link to entry in Norwegian blog.

OR – the hidden science

Virginia Postrel has written a great little intro to operations research in the Boston Globe (which, incidentally, must be the world’s best “local” newspaper.) Brad Delong and Virginia seem to have started a discussion about the links between OR and productivity.
OR really is the hidden science, but with this and other articles it may be possible to reawaken interest for it. I am, for a number of complicated reasons, president of the Norwegian OR Society (as part of heading the IT group of the Norwegian Polytechnic Society.) This is an honorable title (previous presidents include Kristen Nygaard, Turing prize recipient) but NORS in itself does not have much activity at all. Anyone interested in reawakening it?

My worst demo

Slashdot has a thread on What Was Your Worst Computer Accident?. I have had a few disasters myself – but my real trial by fire came in 1986, in front of 250 of my colleagues.
I was 25 years old, recently graduated, and working in the IT department of the Norwegian School of Management, where I had also been a student. The school’s president had decided to haul the institution, kicking and screaming, into the modern world of computers and electronic communication – so we had installed PROFS, an IBM email and calendaring system, on our mainframe computer (a 4381 running VM/CMS, in case you’re interested.)
We then arranged an end-of-semester all-employee meeting in the grand auditorium, with 250 of the faculty and administration – colleagues and former professors of mine. My task was to convince this rather skeptical audience that email was the wave of the future, demonstrate how easy it was to use and how it would simplify your life. We had rigged an unpredictable and expensive projector, and I demonstrated how to log in, how to start PROFS, how to enter appointments into your calendar, and for the grand finale: How to arrange a meeting. I selected seven people (IT department colleagues with updated calendars) and a meeting room, asked the system to find a suitable time over the next ten days, picked one of the available times, wrote a short invitation, and pressed the F12 button to send the invitation and book the meeting.
The screen went blank, then a CP message (from deep in the bowels of the system) with incomprehensible error codes appeared. Our system programmer, who was sitting in the back of the auditorium, turned white, stood up and ran out of the room. And there was no response from the machine.
It turned out that I had found an undocumented error in PROFS – when choosing 7 people, for 10 days ahead (and some other conditions I don’t remember), PROFS would crash your virtual machine, in a way that had to be recovered from the system console. (This, incidentally, was very hard to do – VM/CMS was extraordinarily stable.)
Of course, I had to do this in front of all my colleagues.
We somehow recuperated, and PROFS became, over the next 2-3 years, a common tool (though, given its poor interface, nothing like the email we have today.) I have since had many instances of the “demo effect” (things breaking when you demo them), but this was the first major one. It inoculated me against technical embarrassment – things just can’t get much worse that bombing in front of the whole company.