Rich For A Reason Award for stiffing the competition
There's only one contender for this one: William Gates, who's taken a lot of flak for sounding like Kermit the Frog and dressing like Michael Foot over the past 10 years. The frog may have been funnier, but no one spots a market like America's richest man, the $18 billion head of Microsoft.
The reason for his wealth isn't Windows 3 - there was no real competition - and it's certainly not Windows 95. It's the invention of the application suite.
In 1991 Microsoft had made a big success of Windows, but had yet to go stratospheric. It had a bunch of middling-to-good applications that were fighting a war on all fronts: against Lotus in spreadsheets, against Wordperfect in wordprocessors, and against SPC - remember them? - in presentation graphics. The strain of making all the packages best of breed, as well as introducing a database into a saturated market, looked likely to tax Microsoft more heavily than would the small job of getting out the next generation of Windows.
So, in a move that immediately turned a weakness (a lack of focus) into a strength (an integrated package that was dirt cheap), the 'suite' was born. Lotus and Wordperfect-Novell-Corel have been trying to catch up ever since, being forced into a series of acquisitions, mergers and bundling deals to try to make it happen. Critics said that suites would cannibalise the profits from application sales. Well, they did for numbers two and three in the game. Microsoft, as ever, raked it in.
They Think It's All Over Award for recklessness
This award, of course, goes to Escom, a company that inspired admiration and fear when it arrived in the UK owing to a reputation for Teutonic efficiency and unstoppability. This reputation was enhanced when the company took over 100,000 retail locations from Rumbelows and within a week had stocked all of them with hundreds of PCs with an average price of u4.99.
The channel concluded this was either suicidal, or Escom was the most brilliant company the world had ever seen. The answer was not long in coming.
Nick Leeson Award for outstanding acumen in share trading
I know Nick Leeson traded futures, but his example of buying high, selling low and using the money you made to do the same again, repeat until fade, has a parallel in the glorious financial history of Novell's expansion in the early 1990s. The fact that Novell is still very much with us shows that someone in the company was doing something right - the respective deals with Wordperfect, USL, Corel and SCO provided an outlet for all that money that Netware was generating.
At the time, buying Wordperfect didn't seem such a big waste of money as it does now. Only a real pessimist would have predicted that Wordperfect would be as badly outdone by Microsoft Office as it was. But Novell showed it had a healthy streak of optimism by buying Unix, then expecting it somehow to fix itself up as the common standard while it concentrated on Netware 4. To anyone who says that Microsoft's trick of building an empire through selling suites of applications and an operating system together gave it an unfair advantage, remember, that's what Novell was trying to do too. It just wasn't as good at it.
Leonardo da Vinci Award for the longest resume
So far we've concentrated only on smart and not-so-smart moves. We've focused entirely on the quality of these decisions. But the British dealer channel is also about quantity, so it would be churlish to ignore the person who made the largest quantity of moves too.
It's a toss-up between Terry Cooke and Jamie Minotto, but Minotto wins because of his neck in pronouncing each job as the opportunity he has been waiting for, the culmination of experience gained in other jobs, the fulfilment of pent-up ambition, and so on. Barely has the reporter filed the copy than Minotto has decamped, resurfacing in a new opportunity he's been waiting for to use that little extra experience.
A decade-long odyssey through Tandon, Pegasus Commodore, Elonex, advertising, and now NChannel (among others) has tended to support his decisions. After he left, most of the companies have suffered at least one major reverse.
Was he right to leave, wrong to join in the first place, or does his absence really have such a devastating effect?
Sinclair C5 Award for the gadget that dealers most made fun of
This goes to Apple for the Newton Messagepad. Whatever the merits of the Star-Trek-props-department Newton in vertical markets, the original positioning of the midget widget as an executive do-it-all was folly of company-breaking proportion.
Its launch was one of the times in the past 10 years where you looked into the faces of the company staff and realised, 'My God! They're serious.'
The Newton took the flak for many reasons. It was the culmination of a fad that for several years predicted that pen computing would make the keyboard obsolete, and even produced the glorious moment when Bill Gates demonstrated Pen Windows on Terry Wogan's chat show. The Newton also came out as Apple's problems were beginning, so instead of being positioned as a bit of a punt on some unproven technology, it was instead anointed as saviour of the corporation.
In this light, the Newton's recovery and present position of niche respectability shows that perhaps it wasn't that bad after all ...
Poll Tax Award for the gadget that dealers would have made fun of except it was more serious than that
You're probably wondering why I haven't mentioned IBM yet. That's because I'm mentioning IBM now. Remember the PS/1? Perhaps it was not IBM's biggest financial disaster, nor the biggest disaster in the PC market (we'll get to that), nor even IBM's biggest disaster in the home PC market (Ambra), but there was something very piquant about the story of the PS/1, something very ... IBM.
Positioned as IBM's leap from the office into the home, the PS/1's launch in 1990 was a bold marketing initiative that stood a chance of establishing a home market. A retail PC with bundled software and a special design that would make it acceptable in the home was five years ahead of many other manufacturers. It was just a shame that the PS/1 was a duffer: as ugly as sin and too expensive.
IBM made a great show of the machine's 'intuitive graphical user interface', which was four pictures of the four bundled text-based Dos applications.
Why? For obvious reasons, it couldn't bundle Windows, and OS/2 was a non-starter. The unit was offered with a 286 processor at a time when a 386SX cost the same. And fearful that the PS/1 would cannibalise sales of IBM's low-end PS/2s for business users, IBM refused to support a network card for it.
It's hard to believe that this was the company heading for what, at the time, would be the largest loss in corporate history, isn't it?
Wimbledon FC Award for grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat
This goes to Compaq which, a year after IBM introduced the PS/1, was running out of steam. Having established a brand which sold with high margins to blue chip corporates, it was ill-suited to sell to the larger public and small businesses. They were buying low-cost second-tier products, or even sub-u1,000 no-name clones off the page at a time when knowing a Compaq dealer was akin to being put forward for membership of the Garrick.
So goodbye Rod Canion and hello Eckhard Pfeiffer, the German that Escom must have wished they had given a job to. Hello also to Compaq's low-cost desktops and two-tier distribution. And latterly, hello to the number five spot in world computer - not just PC - sales.
John Belushi Award for comic rudeness that may yet come spectacularly unstuck
This goes to Oracle's CEO Larry Ellison, who may be either a genius or the world's greatest practical joker, but who isn't letting on just yet.
Just as the PC got really seriously dull, Ellison came along and announced his network computer (NC) idea.
As a way of starting a scrap, no one could have bettered the Ellison approach. One year on, the NC is ready to roll, not least in Cambridge, where Acorn is producing one for the home market. Will the punters go for it? If they don't, at least we've had some excellent one-liners from Ellison in the meantime.
But Ellison does not know the meaning of the phrase 'That's a bit risky isn't it, Larry?' In London recently, the man who provided the list of parts for the NC, Farid Dibachi, revealed that the magic $500 figure wasn't the selling price he came up with. It was the cost of the list of parts.
'The trouble with Larry is that sometimes he believes his own bullshit,' Dibachi helpfully explained.
The Ultimate Award for Making A Decision That With The Benefit of Hindsight Was A Complete and Utter Disaster
The ultimate accolade has, of course, to go to the master of the wrong turning, IBM. Few would disagree that introducing the PS/2 and microchannel architecture (MCA) was the most unfortunate decision in the history of personal computing. As a misunderstanding of the way the channel was heading and a display of breathtaking arrogance, the MCA story has no peer.
The really important technological and marketing innovations of the time - the first portable, the first 386, the first direct-sold PC - were all being made by smaller, hungrier companies that were killing IBM's market for the original PC. Having reverse-engineered the PC BIOS, IBM had no means of using the invention of the PC to extract any cash from anyone.
So with the impeccable logic that characterised 1980s IBM, it invented a new type of PC. It would let people license this PC, but they would have to pay a royalty. Not only that, they would have to pay a back royalty on every PC-XT and PC-AT they had sold.
Surprisingly, the list of takers was short.
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