The Limits of Strategy: Pioneers of the Computer Industry, Second Edition

Ernest von Simson

Publisher: iUniverse Pages: 438 Price: (paperback) $30.99 ISBN: 9781663250513 Reviewed: June, 2024 Author Website: Visit »

Information technology strategist Ernest von Simson provides a savvy, but jargon-intensive, history of the computer industry. Imparting personal insight, backroom anecdotes, and lots of shop talk, he focuses on the “explosive” changes he witnessed from 1974 to 2000 as co-founder of the IT think tank, the Research Board.

Having rubbed elbows with scores of processing pioneers—including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, IBM’s Lou Gerstner and many others—von Simson narrates the era’s highs and lows, from paradigm-shifting technological breakthroughs to its most bitter management battles. He describes how startups, such as Amdahl Corporation, fought to unseat blue-suited old-timers like IBM—only to then be upstaged by the next generation (for example, Sun Microsystems, which came on the scene in 1982, was an industry leader until the mid-1990s when it was outshone by Microsoft.)

Although many of these stories have been reported in trade and business journals, von Simson lends his own perspective, arguing that technological innovation (vs. business strategizing) caused the industry’s seismic shifts. He stresses these wire and code improvements, which enabled computers to become faster and smaller, sometimes blindsided even the industry’s smartest CEOs. (Other chiefs, like DEC’s Ken Olsen, simply lacked “imagination” and were beset as the market shifted from big business to personal users.)

Included are humorous descriptions of lead players (he portrays National Semiconductor’s head Charles Sporck as “A big man glaring over a large handlebar mustache”) and snarky commentary (he derides the “Styrofoam coffee service” that accompanied the “chilly introduction” he received at Fujitsu’s U.S. headquarters) to liven the scene.

However, von Simson’s detailed narrative quickly gets overrun with spreadsheet jargon and numeric soup. (“Hurrying the collapse of an eight-year revenue stream…was not IBM’s much feared 8100 but its little jewel, the 4300 with its four-to-one price/performance improvement”), making this edition challenging for most lay readers. Containing valuable insights as well as amusing highlights from a by-gone era, this guide is best suited for specialists in the sector.

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