How to Sink a Submarine, Apple, or the Tech Giant of Your Choice

Could Operations Research Grant Tech CEOs an Upper Hand?

Over the holiday weekend, I was in the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, and I ran across a fabulous book called, "Blackett's War." Here's the Amazon description: "The exciting history of a small group of British and American scientists who, during World War II, developed the new field of Operations Research (OR) to turn back the tide of German submarines -- revolutionizing the way wars are waged and won." Some went on to win Nobel prizes.

It got me thinking. Is there a modern field of endeavor, operations research & analysis combined with historical business analysis, that can create a body of knowledge that describes, in an operations research sense, how to compete against a giant like Amazon, Apple, Google or Microsoft?

That is, we all know that great products and great focus on the customer create a winning combination, but in addition to all that, are there OR-based strategies that can be developed? Here's just a glimmer of what I mean. "Apple, Samsung and the 'profit share trap'.

There are mathematical and market forces that lead to this: "The Smartphone Wars Are Over, Everyone Wins." The obvious thing to do is move on to the next Big Thing. Perhaps the non-obvious thing to do render the competition less effective by analyzing those forces.

In fact, I wonder if these big tech companies, like Wall Street firms, hire operations research analysts, statisticians, physicists, and business analysis experts to, for example, build simulations and advise the CEO on how to best exploit the opponent's weaknesses, just as the allies used science and math to defeat the Germans in WWII. Maybe it would also help avoid the major error that Intel's Paul Otellini made, described below.

Germans subs brought massive destruction in the Atlantic against Allied
convoys in WWII until...

It might also help avoid strategies that appear to make life difficult for the competition but end up just alienating customers. Here are two examples of defective strategies that probably looked like a good idea to some executive, but didn't have a thorough analysis behind them. These two examples show (business) Admirals fighting in the blind with no OR analysis of the consequences.

Creating TV ads that attack the competition, crippling your technologies in key ways to blunt the interoperability of the competition, hiding your unsavory practices from customers with complex software and using the fine print of EULAs to protect you are all 20th century strategies used by CEOs who aren't technically trained. Perhaps the next generation of CEOs will use the sophisticated OR strategies developed 70 years ago that are still being used today to tackle our nation's Biggest Problems (when politics don't undemine them). A lot of this work, for example, airline security and nuclear weapon reliability, is done at our U.S. National Laboratories, like Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Lawrence-Livemore, etc.

After all, business is war.


Tech News Debris for the week of May 20

Once upon a time, Steve Jobs asked Intel CEO Paul Otellini to make the CPU for the planned Apple smartphone, to be called the iPhone. Mr. Otellini declined the offer, sizing up Intel's corporate focus and not quite appreciating the potential of the smartphone revolution. Later, Mr. Otellini would regret the decision, saying that he should have followed his gut. Here's the story by Jean-Louis Gassée: "Otellini’s Striking Confession."

Once you make the conscious decision to invest in supercomputer technologies, there are huge payoffs down the road. Previously, I have mentioned how IBM's investments in supercomputers led to Watson, and then I opined that Watson would lead to new, unanticipated technologies. I'll have to say that I was right on all that. "IBM Watson on smartphones to make customer service bots less annoying." By the way, Jon Brodkin is a terrific technical writer and you should read anything he publishes.

Supercomputer technologies can lead to advanced analysis that can go a long way towards helping a seat-of-the-pants CEO. For example, along the lines of the preamble above, our WWII scientists told the Admirals to increase the size of the convoys in the North Atlantic. The number of escort vessels didn't have to increase -- or increase only modestly. It was a shocker, and flew in the face of common sense. But it worked.

When you have an autocratic CEO, and the operations research advice is to do something that seems crazy, he must have a special kind of technical training and personality to adopt the idea, trusting in the deep analysis. Like a chess grandmaster. Lesser CEOs throw you out of the office. Does Tim Cook have a team doing that? Would he take their advice if he did?

Speaking of Mr. Cook, some of TMO's readers complain that Apple's CEO doesn't have the charisma to be persuasive and command our attention and loyalty. It's almost as if, unless a charismatic leader tells us to do something, we don't have the internal, executive function to make a decision on our own. Of course, carried to extremes, we get a situation where a Steve Jobs protégé like Larry Page goes overboard. That's not so great either: "Larry Page wants you to stop worrying and let him fix the world."

I like this story, only peripherally related to Apple, because it was a reminder that government, which seems to often fail spectacularly in serving its citizens can also be a powerful force for good in the right hands. Plus, the story is so satisfying. "Patent troll that wants $1,000 per worker gets sued by Vermont Attorney General."

I am skeptical of wish lists for products that Apple makes unless they reflect the broadest consensus on what really needs to change. This is a pretty good one, however.  "Dear Apple: Please make these 4 upgrades to the next MacBook Pro, ‘K, thanks." What do you think?


Teaser: sub attack via Airmuseum.

WWII U-boat via ICM kits


Particle Debris is a generally a mix of John Martellaro's observations and opinions about a standout event of the week combined with a summary of articles that didn't make the TMO headlines, the technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holidays.