How to lose friends and irritate IT

In 1982, In Search of Excellence, a book profiling a dozen or so successful American companies, hit the book shelves. It's taken 20 years, but Merrill Chapman took inspiration from In Search of Excellence to write its antithesis for the world of IT.

In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 years of high-tech marketing disasters by Merril Chapman

(Apress, $59.95)

In 1982, In Search of Excellence, a book profiling a dozen or so successful (at the time) American companies, hit the book shelves. It's taken 20 years, but Merrill Chapman, a former programmer and IT salesman, took inspiration from In Search of Excellence to write its antithesis for the world of IT. The book draws on Chapman's dual technical and sales background and looks at a dozen or so companies where miscued marketing or conflicts between technical staff, sales/marketing and management lost them serious money and market share.

Most of the companies he profiles are around today, examples being IBM and Novell, but IBM's PC Junior and OS/2 have the heat turned on them. As does Novell's 1993 decision to rename NetWare 4.11 intraNetWare, thus causing customers to think it had canned the NetWare line. This is cited as an example of the company's "continuing inability to execute product marketing fundamentals". The accommodation and food at "the inn", the only accommodation for customers visiting Novell's Provo, Utah headquarters, also attract flak from Chapman, who claims one customer vowed to switch from NetWare to NT after getting indigestion while staying there.

The egos and personalities of CEOs such as Ashton-Tate's Ed Esber and Borland's Philippe Kahn come under scrutiny in light of some of their decisions. Chapman notes that when Borland bought the database company Ashton-Tate for $US440 million in stock in 1991, there was speculation Borland's then-French CEO must have been thinking in francs, not dollars.

Other examples of what Chapman calls stupidity include Motorola's ill-fated Digital DNA brand and Netcape's Mark Andreessen's baiting of Microsoft, causing the latter to crush Netscape.

Readers who have been in the industry a while will be familiar with most of the disasters Chapman recounts, but will no doubt enjoy hearing about them again and perhaps shuddering.

Those who came on the scene later will be amused and shocked at some of the off-beam and wacky marketing plans he dissects, such as IBM's 1995 decision to rebrand OS/2 as Warp and give it a Star Trek theme. Trouble was, Paramount Pictures, owners of the Star Trek trademarks, forbade IBM from associating Warp with Star Trek, thus ensuring the market read Warp to mean "twisted" or "bent".

Amusing as In Search of Stupidity is, you can feel sorry for the vendors Chapman sometimes cruelly critiques, because, after all, he wrote the book with the benefit of hindsight. And no one would assume, especially in the furious-paced world of IT, that every marketing campaign is going to be successful.

Then again, it's a tough old world out there and marketers, management and technical staff have to be on the ball. That's a quality Chapman credits Microsoft with. He also praises them for keeping in close contact with the developer community, something he criticises others for not doing.

But, for those worried he's in the pocket of Redmond, even that company comes in for some criticism, for licensing Java from Sun and for some of Bill Gates' performances during the Justice Department's anti-trust probe.

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