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Friday, May 01, 2009

Review: Almost Perfect

One of the best things about owning a Kindle is that items that are too long to read entirely online are easily converted to Kindle format and then are indistinguishable from books. Almost Perfect is one such item.

Almost Perfect was written by W. E. Pete Peterson, one of WordPerfect's early employees and CEO in all but name. For those of you who remember the era of desktop software, there's the usual Microsoft story of the evil empire using its formidable influence to tilt the market to its playing field. I was on the sidelines at the time, and my observation was that most Microsoft competitors didn't need Microsoft's help doing themselves in.

In WordPerfect's case, it was clear that they had an incredibly good product for DOS and character-based interfaces. I was an early Wordstar user, and I remember how MicroPro shot itself in the foot with the introduction of Wordstar 2000, destroying all the backwards compatibility the users had come to expect. Frequently, the lack of backwards compatibility was what killed a lot of software companies. (Microsoft's current woes with Vista driver and application compatibility is only the latest such example)

The book is short and well-written, and unremittingly describes WordPerfect's success (listening to the customer, supporting them well, and learning from their mistakes) and mistakes (supporting platforms and programs that didn't make money, never developing in house management talent that could think the way the founders did, and being too optimistic about the resources required to compete in GUI-oriented word processing programs). In this case, the attempt to diversify across product lines extracted a costly toll on the company that it could not afford, since it did not have a monopoly that Microsoft had to sustain as many disparate development efforts as they did.

Ultimately, however, I consider this book a good example of the importance of building an organization that can function along without key people, rather than an organization composed of superheroes. While Pete Peterson was undoubtedly a talented executive (proving once again that business school is no substitute for hard work and common sense), towards the end he was strained past the breaking point by WordPerfect's growth, and could not keep track of all that was essential for success. He wanted to run a flat organization, but the shortage of management talent in the company (and his flailing attempts to remedy it at the last minute) eventually came to roost, and WordPerfect paid the price.

Recommended for its brief, honest appraisal, and a good look at the inside world of desktop, shrink-wrapped software.

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