Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Competing on Internet Time by Cusumano and Yoffie

Last night, as I usually do, I settled into a chair on my back porch and began a little after dinner reading. Within 30 minutes I was having trouble keeping my eyes open and had developed quite a headache. And that's a perfect description of how I feel about Competing on Internet Time, Lessons from Netscape and its Battle with Microsoft by Michael A. Cusumano and David B. Yoffie. Dull. Painfully dull.

This book is mentioned so often in various "must read" lists of business books or software books or entrepreneurship books that I finally decided to see what lessons could be gleaned. Apparently I waited too long.

I'm not saying this book is dated.  It's not like a high school history text that predicts "some day man will walk on the moon."  But it reads more like a legend of computing history rather than a business case study from which one can learn valuable, actionable lessons.

Internet time.  Hasn't it been almost a decade since we invalidated that whole idea about how the simple existence of the internet supplanted business experience up to that point?  And they drop the term "internet time" on about every 5th page, probably to strengthen the branding.

Perhaps I just waited to long to read this book (copyright 1998).  Is this what people in B-school read now?  Do they study the back and forth moves of Clark and Gates like cadets at a military academy study King Harold and Duke William at the Battle of Hastings?

For better or worse, Cusumano and Yoffie give the whole tale a Judo theme, forcing analogies into every confrontation: use your competitor's strength against them, never attack a stronger foe, and on and on.  Unfortunately, it gives the whole book the feel of a poor man's Art of War.

So I managed to read 132 of 336 pages and take about 2 pages of notes.  In that reading, I found a lot of contradictions.  Netscape's management is lauded for their experience, yet when placing blame for Netscape's reputation as an arrogant partner they write "management got carried away with their success and promised more than they could deliver."  The brilliance of their technical leaders is applauded, but their first releases are described as "rickety little things."  Netscape is criticized because "day to day, they never new the direction of their strategy" and that makes you wonder whether it is the result of Andreesen's abrupt changes in direction or management's appetite for extracting cash from every possible source.

Don't get me wrong: I used Netscape Navigator for years as my browser before switching to Firefox.  They were very successful in the marketplace from the standpoints of both product and profit.  I just don't care to read about it.

Note: In 1993 or thereabouts I was at the Tied House Brewery in Mountain View with a friend after completing some business at NASA Ames Research Center.  My friend nudged me and nodded with his head to a corner table where a middle-aged gent sat with a bunch of kids.  "That's Jim Clark," he said.  We had reason to recognize Jim Clark after having heavily used SGI computers for the past 6 years.  Perhaps that was Clark and the nascent Netscape team plotting their next Kaeshi against the hordes from Redmond.

No comments: