New: Book Report: In Search of Stupidity

I'm not working on gPhone the Open Handset Alliance. There were various internal recruiting drives for the project; I slunk away from those, kept my head down. I've worked on some mobile phone platforms. Lately, I've been working on other things. Mobile phones were interesting, but it turns out that these other things are pretty interesting, too. Still, there are memories.

The first of those mobile phone platforms was made by a company called Geoworks. Ah, Geoworks. The name brings back waves of nostalgia. But it's a rue-tinged nostalgia. Like, there's some rue mixed up in that first mobile phone platform. It was pretty advanced, it ran pretty fast, seemed to be engineered better than the competition. But then all of the deals went away. A competitor had turned their platform into a standard which many companies would contribute to--an alliance, as it were. In the end, most of those allies didn't use the software, but it took those allies a while to figure out what they would do, software-wise. Meanwhile, they sure weren't buying Geoworks' software. Eventually, most of those allies fell away from the alliance; Is Nokia the only one left? Anyhow. That alliance was Symbian. Recently the CEO of Symbian was described in the news as not being too worried about the Open Handset Alliance. Was he really being disparaging--or does he know how hard it is to keep an "alliance" of mobile phone companies to cooperate?

Ah, Geoworks nostalgia tinged with rue, woven through with rue.

GEOS didn't start out as mobile phone software. It started as an OS for x86 machines. You know, PCs. Microcomputers. Going up against Microsoft? What could we have been thinking? Which reminds me: I am supposed to be writing this book report on the book In Search of Stupidity. (This might be a good time to mention that my opinions are mine. My opinions are not my employer's. My opinions are not my now-defunct ex-employer's--any of them.)

Joe M. at work recommended this book. It has some fun anecdotes from the early days of microcomputers. Back when PCs were called microcomputers. Back when all PCs were not necessarily called "PCs". Anyhow. I liked it plenty. Then again, I am a geek of a certain age and thus remember some of the products described. The book's theme is marketing blunders. But (as noted in an afternote), it's hard to narrow blame marketing for all of these blunders. In one anecdote, the company fires all of the engineers... and has trouble marketing future updates. Is that bad marketing?

The most flattering part of this book is in the chapter on OS/2. It talks about how plenty of software companies wasted plenty of effort to port their software to this OS... to no benefit because that OS never really took hold. That wasn't the flattering part. What was the flattering part? The book, a book about stupid companies, mentions my old employer Geoworks, but does not call it out as a stupid company. Yay.

At this point, IBM still had the ability to checkmate Microsoft's plans for Windows. One way was to buy a new OS from a company called GeoWorks. The company had developed a highly optimized product with a slick GUI that could run in a small hardware footprint; GeoWorks ran with amazing alacrity even on the original IBM PC. This was the path favored by [IBM's] Desktop Software division.

The book doesn't mention that Geoworks actually worked on implementing the Presentation Manager look and feel on top of GEOS. (I'm probably getting the details wrong there. But we were doing something like that for IBM.) The theme of that chapter in the book is Companies that IBM Tricked Into Wasting Effort on Presentation Manager and OS/2. I think IBM paid us for our work, though. If we were getting paid, that means our effort wasn't wasted, right? I sure hope so. I think the main lesson we learned was: Never work on a project codenamed "Wizard". It's always bad news.

What, the book? You wanted to hear about the book? Oh, the book is good in some places, other places you might want to skim. The best places are the first-person anecdotes. The author, Rick Chapman was employed with some kooky characters at some of these early microcomputer software companies. Reading about them... you just can't look away from the trainwreck.

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Posted 2007-11-08