Sunday, January 18, 2004

Telirati Newsletter #36

Here is a little-known "success:" Apple's line of servers. The thing I missed was that unless Apple servers are as friendly as Apple's desktops, the purpose of having an Apple server is... what? It would be nice if Apple made servers my mother could configure and operate, but that is not likely to happen without years of effort.

Telirati Newsletter #36: Can everyone be right? Can everyone be wrong?

Can everyone be right? Yes.

Can Steve Jobs be doing a wonderful job of reviving Apple, and can Microsoft safely view Apple as irrelevant? Yes to both. Even if, as a worst case (from Microsoft’s point of view), Jobs has successfully managed Microsoft’s expectations w.r.t. OS X and Apple successfully rolls out a competent server product without drawing Microsoft’s ire in the form of letting Office for the Mac platform wither, Apple cannot divert the freight train momentum of NT servers reshaping corporate and small-business computing. Apple can, however, carve out a slice of the server business at least as large as its desktop market share, which would be very nice indeed.

Is Microsoft moving too slowly? Yes. Why doesn’t Windows have built-in virus protection? I wanted Universal Plug & Play yesterday, not later this year. Is Microsoft moving fast enough? Yes. The incrementalism of technological improvements to the Windows platform is often maddening. One can wait for years while technologies and capabilities percolate up from the OS to full exploitation in applications. But without a carefully crafted and executed plan to migrate Windows toward the future, large dislocations would constantly call the value of improvements into question. As it is, Windows moves about as fast as Microsoft can convey the value of improvements to ISVs and enterprise customers. Which, of course, brings us full circle: Is Windows moving too fast? Yes, if you are one of those enterprise customers that is as yet unreconciled to the fundamental nature of PCs. Hint: they are called “personal computers” for a reason.

Can everyone be wrong? Yes.

The easiest way to show that “everyone” can be wrong is the millenium. The vast majority of the planet will celebrate the “millennium” one year early, at the end of this year. This is the result of a curious combination of innumeracy, the spinelessness of everyone in a position of authority to correct the situation, and the odd influence of the Y2K bug. There was, of course, no year “0.” So the first thousand years A.D. ended at the end of the year 1000. The second millenium ends at the end of 2000, and so on. The end of this year has no greater significance than the fact it is the last year to begin with the numbers “19.” It is enough to make one into a millennialist nut case just in order to wreak some real havoc on the real turn of the millenium. Instead we shall have to settle of a simulacrum of millennial suspense as we wonder how many computers will crash.

But the serious point of this is that popular assent to an erroneous result can drown out science, religion, and things as objective as the calendar itself in propagating an incorrect statement. No conspiracy required, no intent needed. Surely nobody gains by making a counting error on a global, indeed millennial, scale. But once the publicity machine gets going, inconvenient facts are easily ignored. Now consider the kinds of assertions that are pushed in the popular press behind which there is money, influence, or power at stake. If the press is so weak-willed and weak-minded as to go along with an incorrect date for the end of the millenium, what tendentious and harmful lies could they be convinced to transmit? Virtually any well-organized effort to promote a point of view, properly executed, can succeed in using the press to trumpet that point of view and imprint on it the stamp of a press that never hesitates to promote itself as professional and truth-seeking.

The good news is that you no longer need the conventional press. I get my press releases directly from PR newswires, and filter them by keyword. This way, I get what a company intended to say (to the best of their marketing department’s ability to say it) without the intervention of an “editor” that is usually a poorly paid junior employee of a machine for selling advertising to the trade, and without any question as to the point of view of the author. I also use sites like Slashdot.org where dedicated amateurs find interesting articles in the trade press and general press and post them with commentary. This type of Web site, where amateurs provide analysis, counterspin, and content that springs from genuine personal interest are almost always more informative than the piles of trade and general magazines and newspapers that used to clog my desk. The downside is that I have to split more wood for the wood-stove where a substantial portion of my winter fuel needs once were delivered to my mailbox.

The lesson: trust your judgement and your own calculations.

People will lazily accept astoundingly flawed business plans, marketing plans, scientific assertions, etc. simply because they are cowed by the credentials of the people submitting the result, or are stultified by the process. Most of the math in business planning, and even in the analysis of market studies is very simple. If the numbers don’t make sense to you, odds are something is wrong. And in marketing studies, if the experiment design looks flawed, it probably is. High-tech marketing is a young and underdeveloped field that has yet to find a high overlap of both technical and traditional marketing knowledge and experience. The only person you can rely on to check the correctness of plans, budgets, projections, and analyses is you.

Copyright 1998 Zigurd Mednieks.