Apple, Microsoft and the War Mentality

| Hidden Dimensions

"...the hardest thing to do is change an organization thatis been around a long time, has thousands of workers and has a set corporate culture and way of doing things. Even if the employees know intuitively that the government is bloated and archaic, very few would vote to slim down and flatten out the organization. After all, who would willingly agree to kill their own job, their gravy train?"

-- Rodney O. Lain (1968 - 2002)

"Gentlemen, itis the twenty-first century. Youive got to have an open mind."

-- Frank Miller, Ronin (thanks to a Rodney story for the pointer)

In this column, with no partisan politics or specific discussion of the current war, I am going to argue that the same mentality that leads companies to fixate on Microsoft OSes, and their patchwork mentality, is similar to the mentality that drives a certain kind of war problem solving inside the D.C. Beltway.

Now before you race to your comments section, Iill remind you that this is a technical column. I donit discuss politics. Iill also remind you that I am a former USAF officer, and Iim 100% behind our troops. So relax and follow along with me while I analyze a strictly psychological effect in business and government and make some observations about Apple and Microsoft customers.

Business is War

Last week, I discussed how Apple is very good at maintaining degrees of freedom. Flexibility, problem solving, and fast responses are the same virtues that one needs in war in order to win. Of course, these arenit the only virtues. Good communication, intelligence gathering, and efficient logistics are also required.

Getting back to flexibility, one of the things that most upsets Apple enterprise customers is that they have a hard time maneuvering Apple into being a subservient business partner. By that I mean contractual relationships that say, effectively, "If you want me to buy your products, you have to make these concessions." Apple typically refuses to make those concessions. Apple sales executives pull their hair out. Field sales VPs at Apple head off to Cupertino with a head full of steam about how something has to be done to satisfy a big customer. They come back deflated and depressed.

Every day you can read about Appleis astounding success these days, and a lot of the credit goes to Steve Jobs insuring that Apple has the flexibility and the degrees of freedom to act in a fashion that leads to business success.

Not all companies and very few government agencies are able to exercise multiple degrees of freedom such that their natural competitiveness, imagination, and excellence lead to assured success.

Apple does.

Changing Personal Beliefs

Weive all read for years and years about the PC and Macintosh wars. Iive done my fair share of writing about that in previous columns at and It can grow tiring when it focuses on only OS design. My own perspectives on this war have lead to what I call Martellarois Third Law.

No one changes his/her personal beliefs based on input from a peer or subordinate or social inferior.

For example, a wife can badger her husband for years to quit drinking to no avail. But after the slightly intoxicated husband drives over a teenager on a bicycle, with grave injuries, and stands before a judge, the story is different. A significant part of self-judgment comes from knowing how to calibrate your decisions. If you canit do that, often someone else will do it for you. When youire standing before a judge, a social superior, who can change your whole life with a single utterance, then you consider changing your actions and beliefs.

Conversely, unquestioned authority leads to a failure of introspection and changed beliefs -- even in the light of new circumstances.

Now, weire all aware of IT organizations that focus 100% on Microsoft products. We know that Microsoftis Windows operating systems are not the most secure OSes ever devised by man. In spite of publications, both print and on the Internet, that suggest companies would do well to consider Apple products, few changes are made. Why?

First, itis because very few CEOs have the technical expertise to challenge their IT staffis decisions. IT Managers call the shots without question in most cases. Unquestioned authority, with no adult supervision from above, never leads to change. Second, instruction (or badgering in some cases) by Apple experts on the Internet, no matter how insightful, cannot effect change. These analysts are considered social inferiors by IT managers.

What happens when power and arrogance are combined with a certain personality type that solves problems incrementally instead of with inspiration and genius?

Trench Warfare

There is a certain personality type that uses adjustment to details to solve a complex problem. This is what I call an engineering approach to problem solving. Let me give you an example.

Early jet engines, built in the 1950s were cranky, underpowered and prone to early failure. We thought we understood the basics of a jet engine with its leading compressor and trailing turbine, but the devil was in the details. It took 40 years of engineering refinement before we could certify an airliner to fly over the oceans with only two engines instead of four.

Some engineering problems are like that.

In the IT world obsessed with Microsoft, this engineering approach manifests itself in the trench warfare against Internet criminals. Every patch made to Windows is a positive act that makes Windows better able to fight the war. Itis engineering refinement and a numb willingness to carry on a dirty, thankless fight. More patches are like more ammunition. "See? Itis getting better."

Consider the following two arguments.

Every patch made to Windows makes it more secure against Internet assailants.


Every soldier we send to Iraq makes us more secure against terrorists.

Problem Solving Means Flexibility

Whenever a physicist is faced with a difficult problem, an engineering approach seldom helps. Iim not talking about incrementally fixing simple mistakes, a minus sign misplaced, or some algebraic errors. Iim talking about a very difficult problem that begs for a fresh line of thinking, a new way of casting the problem, and new assumptions.

When Einstein wrestled with the concepts of relativity and the results of the famous Michelson-Moreley experiment, he faced a dead-end, a paradox. The only way he could craft a solution was to make the bold assumption that the speed of light is measured the same for all observers no matter how fast theyire moving. That means that if you zoom by me at 290,000 km/sec, and you measure the speed of light in your starshipis science lab, the answer will still be 299,792.458 km/sec. Yes, itis counter-intuitive. It was also genius.

Einsteinis breakthrough was that he had degrees of freedom. He was able to make a bold assertion, unfettered by constraints, with a fresh insight, that solved a difficult problem. [1] The bottom line was that Einstein broke free of the old thinking to be successful.

Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi, a biochemist, summed it up recently when he observed that "Discovery consists in seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought."


Thinking about Apple, I recall of the degrees of freedom they have maintained for themselves as a company so that they can engage in discovery. Steve Jobs sees the computer industry as everyone else does, but thinks thoughts that no one else has thought. Itis not an engineering approach to problem solving. (Thatis left to the real engineers on the Apple campus.) Steve does the grand scale problem solving.

When an organization as a whole digs in and fights the war against Internet assailants with Windows, there is a certain amount of inflexible thinking. "Microsoft supplies all the business software we need, our MSCE certified people are not familiar with Apple products, we canit afford distractions from the war, and so keep those patches coming so we can make our system incrementally better and better!"

Worse, Microsoft makes you pay a heavy financial penalty if you even think about changing the game. Your loss of flexibility maintains their cash flow and, conveniently, makes you feel that youire accomplishing something.

As we know, there is no light at the end of this tunnel. Microsoft never made the big commitment, never bit the bullet like Apple did in the transition from Classic/legacy Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X. Microsoft, because they had too many constraints, too few degrees of freedom, too many business commitments and concessions, too much technology locked up in the old APIs and kernel design, never made that leap. And so Vista is basically Microsoftis version of Mac OS 9.3. Pretty snazzy. Cool graphics. Slightly better security. But basically deficient, built on a poor foundation, and not able to confidently face the war against Internet assailants with a new footing and a new technology.

Did I mention that these assailants are foreign governments?

The Forever War

I see this trench warfare thinking in the government. Without radical news ways of thinking, without degrees of freedom, with too many self-imposed constraints, and no checks and balances on executive authority, the only possible solution is to continue to patch the situation.


The war against Microsoftis operating system isnit going to stop. There will be endless assaults against Vista for the lifetime of the product. Those assaults are getting more and more sophisticated The war front has moved from old-time crackers in bathrobes in Copenhagen to smart young men in foreign governments. IT managers who place their critical systems on the Internet continue to work harder and harder, burning themselves out and destroying the profession.

What is the brilliant solution of these IT managers? Move critical servers and software engineering responsibility to foreign sites. Turn away from the problem for short term financial gain.

Securing U.S. computers in the current global war is not an incremental engineering problem. Itis not a question of being stubborn and persistent in the face of failure. Itis not a question of more patches and more money and more ground troops in your IT group that fights a losing proposition with insufficient tools. Itis about new ways of thinking and problem solving based on vision, freedom, flexibility, and knowledge.

For example. I remember Appleis early forays with the original iMac at Sears. It was a disaster. Sears didnit hire clerks to be enthusiastic, informed and to demonstrate solutions. They were hired to operate a cash register. Apple could have said, "Weire going to work harder! Weill put those salespeople into training programs. Weill teach them how to love our products! And weill badger Sears until the sales go up!" Instead, Apple saw the endless frustration of that strategy. It wasnit working, and it wasnit going to get better.

They opened their own stores and hired smart, inspired people full of enthusiasm. This was an important degree of freedom. Sears failed to seize the opportunity. Their inability to change left US$4 billion per year in sales on the table for Apple to snap up.

Itis Not Even Wrong

Iill wrap this up with one of my favorite quotes.

Wolfgang Pauli was a brilliant, idiosyncratic physicist. He could be a little caustic when he saw a theory that was foolish and had no physical or intuitive basis. When he saw something like that, his comment would be, "Itis not even wrong."

By that he meant that the theory wasnit just a little off; it was total nonsense. A misplaced minus sign would make a good theory wrong. A very bad theory is worse. Itis not even wrong. [2]

The war against terrorism and global assailants with endless patches to Windows, with no exit strategy or vision for winning, would be characterized by Pauli as "not even wrong."

In summary, Appleis focus on degrees of freedom, inspired problem solving, and a modern approach to OS security has allowed them to win on multiple fronts. They provide their customers with the technologies they need to win their own wars. Conversely, those who engage in the eternal, incremental, war-patch mentality will find themselves hard-pressed to win any endeavor, any war.

[1] Even so, Einstein never received a Nobel prize for his relativity theories, and it took another 50 years for his radical ideas to be universally accepted.

[2] Some are invoking this phrase to refer to big problems with String Theory.

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