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Beyond nerd chic
We are all nerds now. Or maybe there are no nerds anymore. One way or the other, technology has reached the masses in the past two decades. This sense that humanity's relationship with technology is attaining a certain maturity seems to permeate a crop of recent books that cover the past, present, and future of high-tech industries.
Case in point: Folks can launch their own satellites now. One of the most inspiring business books of the past year tells how a little company full of big ideas, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., got into the business of putting commercial satellites into space. In Silicon Sky: How One Small Start-Up Went Over the Top to Beat the Big Boys into Satellite Heaven (Perseus Books, $26, 0738200948), author Gary Dorsey chronicles the progress of a pipe dream as it has evolved into a company with 1998 revenues of $734 million.
Orbital founder David Thompson gave Dorsey unfettered access to the company's inner workings - from the beginning of its efforts to design a commercially viable communications satellite in 1992 through the first launch in 1995. The author clearly identifies with Thompson's entrepreneurial ardor, contrasting Orbital's culture of discovery with the "feudal," unimaginative culture of old-line aerospace companies addicted to government contracts.
What Dorsey lacks in objectivity, he makes up for in clarity. From his fly-on-the-wall perch, sitting in on company meetings and peering over the shoulders of workers in the lab, he has observed and distilled into concise prose the details that made Orbital's success possible. Dorsey explains the technology behind the business so fluidly that it hardly seems like rocket science.
If Orbital's story offers inspiration, another new book offers exactly the opposite. When you see an airplane crashing from a clear blue sky, you just have to watch. When you encounter one of the great triumph-to-disaster stories in the history of American business - the rise and fall of Apple Computer Inc. - you just have to read on.
Michael S. Malone's Infinite Loop: How The World's Most Insanely Great Computer Company Went Insane (Currency/Doubleday, $27.50, 0385486847) is the stuff of a corporate horror movie, replete with moments of terrible Scooby-Doo inevitability. Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak might as well be the teenaged couple wandering through the spooky factory, about to pry open the icebox door to see what's making the noise inside. You want to put hands over eyes and scream: "Wozniak, no! Don't give away blocks of your founders' stock to 30 buddies on a whim! Jobs, no! Don't shoot down CEO John Sculley's idea of making the Macintosh IBM-compatible!"
This is the tale of a company that had it all - and blew it. Early in the personal computer age, Apple had superior technology on its side. Its customers displayed fanatical product loyalty. Its young founders became instant archetypes of the creative energy that made U.S. high-tech industries the envy of the world. But Jobs and Wozniak achieved too much too early in life. Success thoroughly ruined their magic and nearly ruined the company.
Malone tries to cut through the Silicon Valley mythology that now surrounds the company's beginnings in the garage of Jobs's Santa Clara, California home, and he makes a special effort to recognize key players in its first years who have not shared the limelight since.
Malone was an insider for part of Apple's early journey and covered the company as a journalist at other times. He brings to this account an authority and an evident big-picture understanding that lay to rest any conflict-of-interest concerns. Still, his disgust with Steve Jobs fairly oozes from these pages. There is a grudging tone to his rather passing acknowledgment that a more grown-up Jobs (now a wise old man of 43) has presided over quite a turnaround at Apple since he engineered a boardroom coup and returned to the helm in 1997. The book went to press in October 1998, just as the new iMac line of PCs had begun to rack up some of Apple's best sales in years. Since then the numbers have made a Merlin of Jobs once more. Apple's profits are way up, and the company said in April that it had doubled its share of the retail desktop market over the past year.
In The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity (Macmillan Computer Publishing, $25, 0672316498), Alan Cooper has a message for fellow technologists: Get human.
A much-lauded software author and designer, Cooper sets out in this book to "make the business case for interaction design." Interaction design is a lofty-sounding term for what ought to be an obvious concept: making things (such as computer software and hardware) that people can easily use.
Such a simple truth has eluded Silicon Valley's best minds, in Cooper's view. And he says it doesn't have to be that way. Designers don't have to make guinea pigs out of customers, rolling out half-baked versions of computer products and then relying on users' complaints as the basis to tweak subsequent editions.
Cooper's book is a plea for technology's high priests to meet the masses halfway. Sure, people in business must come to terms with bits and bytes, he argues - but those who turn ones and zeroes into screen icons need to do a much better job of focusing on the needs of computer users.
Inmates' main audience is the general business reader, for whom the book is a glimpse at how the technologists do their thing - and how they could do it better, making the lives of computer users easier and making companies that depend on technology more successful.
Cooper offers an alternative to the Microsoft way of doing things. In fact, Bill Gates makes a case against interaction design in Business @ The Speed of Thought: Using a Digital Nervous System (written with Collins Hemingway; Warner Books, $30, 0446525685; Little Brown, Abridged, $24.98, 1570427526; Time Warner Audio, Unabridged, $49.98, 1570427534). "You're usually better off tackling smaller processes and building on them," Gates argues, "and then improv[ing] the solution as you get user feedback."
To many of the millions who work with Microsoft products every day, user feedback sounds like a euphemism for the anguished squawks emitted when a program performs an "illegal operation" and shuts itself down, or when that annoying little paperclip guy pops up on screen to ask whether you know how to write a letter.
But the Microsoft way is here to stay, and, on balance, that may be a good thing. More than anyone else, Gates has brought computer technology into the everyday lives of people the world over. One can politely debate him, as Cooper does, or hate him - but not ignore him. He is the Alpha Nerd.
Business @ The Speed of Thought lays out Gates's vision of the near future in worldwide business and society. His underlying message: You ain't seen nothin' yet. For all the productivity gains registered by businesses in the past decade through the skillful deployment of technology, the hot-wired organizations of the 21st century hold the promise of even greater progress. The book is full of real-world examples of companies whose "digital nervous systems" are making them more efficient and profitable by improving the flow of information among decision-makers at all levels.
Not all of these systems are necessarily produced by Microsoft. Gates uses his company's inner workings to show the processes that go into digitizing a business, but he also candidly discusses Microsoft's, and his own, failures of strategic vision in the past - most notably its tardiness in embracing the internet's potential.
Gates makes a persuasive argument that technology can be a liberating force. In businesses, improved digital information systems can empower employees to move beyond carrying out orders and take more initiative on their own. Beyond business - in education, government, and elsewhere in society - the same systems can benefit the common good.
Nashville journalist E. Thomas Wood is the author of Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust (Wiley).