Steve Ballmer, International Security, and Us Little Folk
Here's a snip of consciousness from a late night last week...
It was the first week of my first semester at MIT. At the time every class was full of excitement from the pass/fail grading, new friends, and fresh love interests. I went to my political science class, American Foreign Policy, and this one was no different. I spotted the cute girl from my dorm and took a seat.
The brilliant aprofessor, Stephen Van Evera, started talking about political science as a science. It’s a different kind of science, he said. In contrast to physics or chemistry, we’re dealing with:
- Low “n” (few data points),
- We cannot perform experiments,
- Our independent and dependent variables are often qualitative, and not to mention
- If accidents, personalities, and serendipity shape history, how can general theories explain the past?
“Consider Annie Oakley’s central role in world history,” our notes said. Annie Oakley was a famed rifle shooter; probably the best in the world in the early twentieth century. She was in Europe and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany challenged her to shoot out a cigarette he was going to put in his mouth. She hit it right on target but supposedly regretted for the rest of her life not taking him out. He was largely responsible for World War I.
In such a science we’re basically left with history to learn from, and history is noisy. It’s a primitive science.
I noticed a parallel when watching Steve Ballmer’s talk to Stanford student entrepreneurs. Ballmer was talking about business strategy and mentioned a case study about the Kodak-Polaroid wars in the 1970s:
It’s an interesting case. If you read it, think through your thoughts and then you can read on the web about what actually happened after 1976 where the case study leaves off.
But more than not I just get the sense that business strategy and international policy are both hard.
For example, I wonder if Ballmer thought he could easily kill Google in 2005. Again, low n. Microsoft has killed many companies in the past, but Netscape seems to be the only one of recent memory that was a sizable competitor. Microsoft was able to beat Netscape but largely because Netscape self destructed with a complete code rewrite and misguided aspirations to kills the Windows franchise.
Well Google isn’t biting that bait.
But most of this doesn’t matter for small time software entrepreneurs like us. In a USA versus USSR situation you better believe people are doing their game theory and acting at least somewhat rational.
Same thing with MSFT – if they’re doing a bear hug you better believe they’ve crossed their t’s.
Okay, okay – certainly all governments are stupid in some ways and big companies can be too. But you don’t see countries like the USA running 500% daily inflation rates or razing whole neighborhoods and leaving people homeless, as we see in smaller regimes like Zimbabwe.
That’s where we are, my friends! We’re in the millions not the billions. Polaroid and Kodak case studies are less likely to be helpful than making a good product and waiting for your competition to self destruct.