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http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/06/microsoft_windo_1 .html

12 I have. I'm tired of talking to Ramesh every time I swap a motherboard, something I do fairly frequently.

I recommend to my friends that they always keep a copy of OpenOffice on their systems in the event that MS Office's activation system locks up the software when they're not expecting it and they can't reach a phone or the Internet to reactivate it. Interoperability is excellent and you can usually get something done. It's good protection against our copy protection.

It appeared that open source has a friend in Redmond after all!

thirteen ON AVOIDING STUPIDITY

I periodically give lectures at such venues as technology trade shows, product managers' groups, and high-tech councils, and before beginning my talk, I always ask this question: "How many people have read the following books?" I then list some of the seminal publications on the history of high tech. These include such books as Apple by Jim Carlton, Gates by Steve Manes, and Hackers by Steven Levy. Invariably, only one or two hands go up; often, none do.

Then, I ask how many people have read the newest, hottest, the-promised-land-is-within-your-reach-if-you-just-follow-the-diktats-of-this-newest-business-guru wonderbook. The latest wonderbook differs from year to year and from decade to decade. In the 1980s it was, of course, In Search of Excellence by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman and its myriad of profitable spin-offs (all based on an original foundation of bogus data). In the early-to-mid 1990s it was often Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore and its myriad of spin-offs (all based on product life cycle models that were first introduced in the 1950s). By the late 1990s and early 2000s it was often The Innovator's Dilemma by Clay Christensen, which discusses how established companies have a hard time dealing with new ideas and the very successful follow-on, The Innovator's Solution, which proposes a solution to the problem the author of the book admits no one has ever actually used (which is a rather innovative way to end a business book series, when you come to think about it).

Now, in all fairness, many of these business books offer practical, if often generic, advice about how to run a business and the best things to do while you're doing it. Like most exercise machines, many of these books "work" if you rigorously follow their commonsense advice. In most cases, thinking up new or improved products or services to sell to people (this process is currently being lionized as "innovation," and businesses have been doing it since the pyramids, but apparently the new label makes everyone feel even better about the process), being open to new ideas, treating customers well, organizing your data, hiring good employees, not committing accounting fraud, and so on, and so on, will certainly improve your chances of success. But this is rather like saying that breathing increases your chance of competing in the 100-yard dash. It will, but mere respiration is not what separates winners from losers in a race.

The danger comes when you dig into the specifics and try to apply the generic to your specific business and its challenges. Most writers of "theory" books can't overcome the tendency to fit the facts into their grand frameworks, leading to a lot of misleading and contradictory advice. You already know the problem with Excellence. The Chasm books sometimes work well when talking about enterprise markets with fairly well-defined buying processes, but if you had relied on their advice during the microcomputer market's early growth spurt in the 1980s, you would have been caught utterly flat footed by the rapid pace of events (Moore tries to deal with this problem with a later book that acts as a retrofit to the original theory, but it's unconvincing). The Innovator books, written by an academic who has never worked in business, proffers a solution that has never been demonstrated to solve anything.

It's not just high-tech firms that get themselves into hot water in this regard. Super-duper consulting firm McKinsey first wrote about and then introduced the concept of "eagles flying high" at Enron, a theory based on the belief that by hiring lots of smart people and letting the wind beneath their super-intelligent wings push them into the stratosphere, Enron profits would soar to ever loftier heights, clutched safely in the talons of all these Einstein flyers. Unfortunately, the theory didn't take into account that really, really smart people might, in the interests of self-enrichment, create myriads of business deals and projects that objectively evaluated had little or no chance of turning a profit and then create a dizzying array of interlocking shell companies where accumulating debt could be buried, all at the expense of stockholders and company employees' retirement funds.

Another problem with all business books that focus on grand theories of business success is that, in a very real sense, no such theory can ever exist. To help understand this concept further, take a quick look at a popular Hollywood fantasy, that of the young go-getter who develops a surefire way to "beat" the stock market. Now, suppose this fantasy could be translated into reality. Imagine that through the use of supercomputers and sheer genius programming, you create a stock-picking system that infallibly predicts which stocks will go up and down and then write a book releasing this information to the world.

What would happen?

What would happen would be that the stock market would immediately congeal into immobility and would have to be rejiggered to work in such a way that all your good advice and smart programming would be rendered useless. This goes back to the fundamental reality underlying all market-driven systems: there must be a winner and a loser in every transaction for the system to work. (It's a grim fact, but before you run shrieking into the comforting arms of Marx and Lenin, the empirical evidence suggests that communism simply creates losers all around.)

This carries over to the competitive environment all companies must endure in market-driven economies. Competition must winnow the myriad of firms over time to ensure the market can function. Failure must happen. But failure must also always have a cause.

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