Almost Perfect

I came across Almost Perfect via Hacker News, a candid first-hand account of the rise and fall of WordPerfect.

It is so interesting to see how WordPerfect was blind its impending death. I am not singling out WordPerfect here, rather as a theme how corporations are all blind to their eventual death. The singular theme of the book was about Digital, and other giants of computing of the day, losing to upstarts like IBM PC; Wordstar falling on WordStar 2000, eventually overtaken by WordPerfect; the struggle of WordPerfect – even at its heyday – against an ambitious Microsoft, who left nothing to chance by owning the entire stack. There was first the struggle to the top, and then the struggle to stay at the top.

There was also blindness to people and human emotions. Peter Peterson’s service ethic came through when he said WordPerfect Corp’s mission was to build great software, not about family barbecues. He held particular management views to be the singular timeless Truth, rather than attributing some success to luck, competitors stumbling, and strategy that happened to be right for its time.

Success bred infallibility. The gods must have laughed when they made Peter’s drapery business fail, and yet the protagonist did not recognize that his success at WordPerfect was due to circumstance, not personal sagacity.

Reading along, Peter was not afraid to “make enemies” within his own corporation. So long as his idea was executed. (The spoils of winning was not shared, as managers often had their divisions split when the business grew, in order to maintain a flat reporting structure. This was well and good for God, but people resented that.) This is in contrast to Eric Ries’s Lean Startup, where Boyd’s OODA loop was employed so not to get too religious about any particular view.

Then there was a human moment, when Pete was forced out. Although he was well off financially, he begged for his job back, when he realized that the work environment meant more to him than vice versa. And there was raw anger from his daughter:

My oldest daughter, Wendy, was furious with me, however. She accused me of standing up for my principles only until I had to live with the consequences, and she was right.

Peter wrote about the lack of focus at Wordperfect, as they supported a large selection of platforms (including Amiga and Java), printer drivers1, and unprofitable products. WordPerfect for DOS supported a whole bunch of unprofitable forays. It is kind of like Microsoft, where the Office products generate most of its cash revenue.

Competitors matter too. Peter rightly respected Microsoft for their software prowress. Furthermore, Microsoft had the benefit of an integrated stack. WordPerfect for Windows stumbled along because most of the Windows developers worked for Microsoft. Microsoft was hungry enough to want the competitors software run poorer on their platform. Some of this was done by limiting the set of published APIs. At other times, by putting their components into the platform itself, so that their own software got to use the components for “free”, without paying a RAM fee.

Today, one can see Microsoft at its peak, just like WordPerfect and MicroPro. Netbooks are to PCs was the PCs were to centralized computing. A lot of software vendors for minicomputers went out of business as they hung on to their margins and big ticket items. So too will Microsoft as it sees the base of customer for installed software shrinks.

In some ways, Microsoft suffered from its own karma when it was unable to execute on Hailstorm, which was the correct vision.

Somehow, the world was not prepared to let Microsoft succeed again.

More discussions over at:

1 One wonders whether they could have achieved more success if they had worked with the printer manufacturers on a common API, like Microsoft’s GDI for printing.

Update 23 Jul 2009

Check out Malcolm Gladwell’s Cocksure on the New Yorker. He talks about overconfidence leading to failure to adapt.


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