On I Sing the Body Electric by Fred Moody

The author spends a year sharing office space and lurking in email discussions within the Microsoft team that develops Explorapedia, a children's encyclopedia. It's a story of team dysfunction that makes KA politics seem tame. The players are all reasonably smart but the lack of people skills causes them to spend two years developing the thing, with people standing around doing nothing for much of that time.

It is striking how similar the politics and the multimedia development problems are to KA's: they are always over the CD budget, everything runs too slowly, and the designer-development disconnect is severe. The designers find the development tools bewildering, and the result is incredible inefficiency as the product is designed with all sorts of pie-in-the-sky neat feature concepts that prove overly expensive to develop.

There are a few differences from KA: KA gets their products to market much more quickly (one year instead of two, generally), and as a result each project has much less to deal with in terms of reorgs and personnel changes during its lifespan. On the other hand, MS's products are more successful, perhaps because of the marketing behind them (that's my suspicion) but perhaps also because they end up better due to the longer design time. It's hard to say.

Thoughts on Why MS is Successful

All in all, this book strengthens my growing impression (as I read the spate of MS-related books that've come out lately) that MS's success is a business success, not a technical one. It's very clear that Bill Gates sets a hardheaded "how will this make us money" and "how will this make us money long-term" focus, terrorizing everyone in the company into actual thinking about issues often left to chance. He doesn't just look for profitable products, he looks for hugely profitable, market-seizing products.

In addition to their business focus, MS's success rests upon their marketing machine. It's really another facet of the same thing: they take advantage of whatever they can to turn a product into money. Since they have so many levers into the software markets through their huge stable of products, MS marketing has a great ability to push here and pull there to take over a whole market.

The author of I Sing felt that MS purposely shortens schedules to unrealistic levels, so ask to throw developers into a sense of despair, so that they'll work harder and so that they're guaranteed to feel that they've failed at the end of a project. The idea is that they'll work even harder on the next one to fix the things they did wrong the first time.

Thoughts on Multimedia

The book spawns for me some interesting insights about multimedia software products. One is that content is becoming king, although currently technology is still king. Once production of such products becomes easy, the market will be flooded with translations from books into software, and book publishers will become the biggies in the software publishing arena. Software publishers will be left behind due to a relative extreme scarcity of content. As the field grows, it'll become an all-Hollywood star-driven sort of business where which star's agent you play raquetball with will control your success.

Another insight is that such products should just be designed and produced and not user-tested much. User-testing can be good for UI issues, but in an entertainment product it can lead to stalled projects and inconsistent committee-designed features. Sometimes you should be analytical, but in this business you should often go from the gut.

Substantive changes:
    March 3, 1996: created.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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