Why every tech firm needs a tyrant at the top

Apple iPad
Why do other tech firms find it so hard to out-Apple Apple?

Now the iPad hype/excitement [delete as applicable] has calmed down, it's a good time to look at Microsoft.

It's been pushing tablets for nearly a decade. What went wrong? How could a company with so many brilliant people be upstaged yet again?

The problem appears to be, er, Microsoft itself. Writing in the New York Times, former Microsoft vice president Dick Brass explains: "When we were building the tablet PC in 2001, the vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn't like the concept. The tablet required a stylus, and he much preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts doomed."

So what did this forward-thinking, go-getting team player do? Yep, he decided to cripple Office. "He refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet. So if you wanted to enter a number into a spreadsheet or correct a word in an email message, you had to write it in a special pop-up box… even though our tablet had the enthusiastic support of top management and had cost hundreds of millions to develop, it was essentially allowed to be sabotaged."

Can you imagine the carnage if somebody tried to do that at Apple?

Microsoft didn't always work that way. As Todd Bishop of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported back in 2008, Bill Gates' "brusque style of doing business" often ruffled feathers.

He would send angry emails demanding to know why the download process for Movie Maker was such a convoluted load of crap, and in the firm's early days "the prospect of a technical review with Gates would instil the fear of God - or more precisely, the fear of Bill - in Microsoft's product teams."

That probably doesn't make for a great working environment, but it tends to make for successful companies.

Apple without Steve Jobs? Useless. Apple with Steve Jobs? Quite possibly terrifying to be part of, but with an extraordinary run of products: iMac, iPod, iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad.

Lose the layers

What's the difference between, say, an iPad and a Windows-based Tablet PC? The former hasn't gone through 400 layers of management, six trillion meetings and input from every "stakeholder".

The cliché says that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, but the Microsoft described by Brass would have enough problems developing a cardboard box with a horse's face drawn on it.

Apple isn't the only tech firm that's thrived with an apparent dictator at the helm. Rob Glaser very nearly became the king of digital media, with RealNetworks dominating the pre-MP3 world of digital music. Former colleagues describe him as "intense", with one dubbing him a "screamer".

Valleywag describes Salesforce.com's CEO Marc Benioff as a "tyrant" and describes how TechCrunch's Michael Arrington "yells at anyone and everyone" like a fat, angry baby. Closer to home, temper and ego led to the ZX81, the Sinclair Spectrum, the Acorn Electron and the BBC Micro.

Before you think that you need to be a pretty crappy human being to run a successful tech firm, we need to stress that it isn't the anger that makes firms work: it's passion, attention to detail and talent.

Temper is often a side-effect of that, but if you take the talent out of the picture then it's just a bunch of rich men yelling at their underlings. Not much to admire in that.

It does seem that when tech firms lose the tyrannical boss, they lose the plot - but firms with mercurial management shouldn't get too cocky, either. The same ego that can produce amazing products and world-beating companies often leads to cockiness, hubris and nemesis.

Microsoft might want to take comfort in that - because while there's no doubt that the iPad is the product of a singular vision, a triumph of technology and a completely new way of doing things, so was the Sinclair C5.


Liked this? Then check out 7 things Apple should change for iPad 2.0

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Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.