November 29, 2012
With the elections out of the way, much attention turns to the post-mortems of how Mitt Romney’s strategy was ultimately doomed. Most of the criticism comes from the political pundits, the men and women who profit from providing commentary and criticism of elected officials and benefit from the added drama of picking winners and losers. If this exhausting election season provided any additional satisfaction, it comes from knowing that most of these pundits were beaten by a thirty-something math geek named Nate Silver, who predicted every single state correctly. Silver, whose non-political work is famous in the baseball world for valuing players using the PECOTA system, has generated his success by watching statistical trends and judging them with a dispassionate lens—something his detractors have derided for years. While math often has a way of clearing things up, unfortunately, it can come off as boring compared to the theater of speculation based on “gut” that seems to capture the imagination of audiences. Whether it’s the old school scouts straight out of “Moneyball” who assess based on arbitrary criteria (remember the scene where the scout knocks a player because “he has an ugly girlfriend—that means no confidence”) or angry political “strategists” who are given way too much air time on news channels, we not only listen to these folks but our assumption is to believe them without using our own better judgment.
The tech world suffers the same issue. We have an infinite number of people that are anxious to label the new products that come out as successes and failures. How many articles were published about the new Microsoft Surface? When someone in our office sent a link to an article calling the Surface a disaster for Microsoft, I responded with two articles that described it as “sexy” and a “must-have” device. While I’m sure most of the people on the thread assumed I was just defending my former employer (I spent six years at Microsoft), I was actually trying to point out how all-over-the-map these so-called experts were. This same person in our office also tried to use my Surface for 90 seconds and then declared it unusable. 90 seconds and he could pass a judgment that it was going to fail. Not that it was a bad product, but that it would fail. Now I’m a believer in the Malcolm Gladwell Blink concept that experts in certain fields have the ability to make snap judgments, but it really is amazing who considers themselves experts. I find ignorance off-putting and there’s no shortage of it, whether it’s baseball, elections, or high-tech products.
Take, for instance, John Dvorak, the longtime PC Magazine editor (yeah, I didn’t know it still existed either). Dvorak needs to be taken with a grain of salt because he is famous for writing things that are almost intentionally absurd to draw attention to himself (journalism at its finest). Still, he wrote an article deriding the Surface not for its style, its usability, or its form factor, but rather the folly of releasing a stripped down version of the OS on the initial batch of Surfaces. Clearly, all the consumers who weren’t tech-savvy wouldn’t understand it’s not the full OS and would return the device, angry that they couldn’t run all of their apps. It looks too much like Windows, he insists. Now anything is possible, but it does seem a little comical given Microsoft’s past history of doing just this (Windows NT, Windows CE, Windows XP Embedded) with decent success. Of course, this is the same man who told Apple to ditch the Mac and license the iPhone design out to Samsung (oh, the irony). But he states it and people take that opinion with them, often declaring the Surface a failure. Consequently, I had 2-3 friends post Dvorak’s comments on Facebook, lending it credence and perpetuating the idea that it was doomed before it had been out for a week. And if/when he is wrong, he’ll quietly sweep it under the rug just as his predictions with the Mac & iPhone. The lack of accountability is stunning.
Will the Surface succeed? I don’t know. I don’t even know what success means to Microsoft or anybody else in this case. What I do know is that the only thing we can assess is whether it is a good product or not (and even that is a matter of opinion, as the disparate Surface reviews indicate). And frankly, product quality doesn’t really predict the whole story about future adoption. For example, I thought the Palm Pre OS was much better than Android, but we all know how that turned out. How the market reacts is, well, up to the market. Speculation is absurd and only serves to skew perception instead of providing any real value and often leaves people with egg on their face. Ask Dick Morris. Ask those retired baseball scouts. Ask John Dvorak.
Oh, and this 800 word blog post was written with pleasure on a so-called unusable Surface keyboard…