Monday, March 5, 2012

Do You See What I See?

Do you want to heap praise upon somebody in the technology industry?  Use a single word to describe them as tops in their field, somebody to be looked up to, respected, and admired?

Call them a "visionary".

Everybody wants to be a visionary.  To be a visionary means to be able to see what other people can't.  It means being able to predict the future.  It means being able to find winning solutions, and understanding what your customers want before they know it themselves.  What could possibly be more valuable than to have a clear view of the future before anybody else?

Lots of things, actually.  Just ask Cassandra.

According to Greek myth, Cassandra was blessed by the god Apollo with the ability to see the future.  However, nobody would believe her, so she was unable to act on her visions, and the blessing became a curse.

Steve Jobs was often acclaimed as a visionary.  Perhaps that was true in spots, but its also true that much of his success was attributable to being a guy with absolutely zero vision, but who could identify quality whenever he saw it.  This was well demonstrated in a famous exchange between him and James Vincent, who was developing the commercials for the forthcoming iPad.  Jobs was adamant that the first round of proposals "sucked", but was unable to provide any guidance for how to improve them. When pressed on this point, Jobs responded "Youve got to show me some stuff, and Ill know it when I see it.

On the flip side, let's talk about somebody who is not often called a visionary: Bill Gates.  We need to be a bit cautious about denigrating Gate's achievements, because whatever you may think of Microsoft's products, its indisputable that he achieved a level of professional success that most people will never approach.  But it's also true that despite hundreds of different products, the vast bulk of Microsoft's wealth and success came from just two product lines: Windows and Office.  In neither of these categories was Microsoft first to market.  (Anybody remember when the leading Office applications were WordPerfect and Lotus123?)  Instead, Microsoft came late to the game with inferior, "me too" products, and achieved market dominance through aggressive marketing, incremental improvement and sheer stubbornness.

Despite this, Bill Gates has demonstrated a brilliant understanding of the future on numerous occasions.  Consider this excerpt from his book "The Road Ahead", where he described a future product, which he called the wallet PC:  "You'll be able to carry the wallet PC in your pocket or purse. It will display messages and schedules and also let you read or send electronic mail and faxes, monitor weather and stock reports, play both simple and sophisticated games, browse information if you're bored, or choose from among thousands of easy-to-call up photos of your kids."

Sound familiar?  Swap the words "Wallet PC" with iPhone or the Android of your choice, and the description is spot on.  Bear in mind that this book was published back in 1994, when the state of the art in portable computing was a device that weighed only 5 lbs and had no built in internet connectivity.

With a lead like this, how could Microsoft possibly fail to dominate the mobile technology platform as thoroughly as it dominated the personal computer?

How indeed.

This isn't the only lead that Microsoft has squandered.  Back in 2008, 2 years before Apple released the iPad, Microsoft was working on a revolutionary new tablet device code-named Courier.  It had a built in camera, and accepted input from both multi-touch and stylus.  Gizmodo, in a review of a late stage prototype, called it "astonishing".  It might have proved a fearsome competitor to the iPad, but we'll never know, because Microsoft killed the product before it was ever released.  This decision was made in part on the advice of then-retired Chairman Bill Gates, who didn't think that Courier followed the core Microsoft Windows strategy closely enough.

In hindsight, this was probably a bad choice.  Might it have been anticipated?  Many years before Courier was killed, a technology visionary made an astute observation about how an ailing IBM was stifling its own innovation.  This came during the period of collaboration between IBM and Microsoft, who were jointly developing the new OS/2 operating system.  At the time, IBM was extremely concerned about interoperability between all of its product lines, and suggested in all seriousness that fonts be dropped from OS/2, because they would not be supported by IBMs existing line of mainframe printers.  This visionary correctly noted that you can't survive in the technology industry for long unless you are willing to cannibalize and render obsolete your own product lines.

That person's name?  Bill Gates.

Cassandra must have been laughing her head off.

For all of Microsofts considerable success, it seems like it might have been greater still had it only managed to take better advantage of the visionary skills of its founder.  It might not be struggling to stay relevant in a world where PCs are rapidly giving way to mobile phones and tablets.  It might still succeed.  But if so, it will be celebrated as a surprising turnaround story, not of a Goliath maintaining its dominance.

So if ever Apollo offers you the chance to be a visionary, think about Bill Gates.  Remember Cassandra.  And most importantly, remember Noah, who understood the key principle of being a visionary: Predicting rain doesnt count, unless you're also building arks.

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