Virulent Word of Mouse

October 29, 2013

William C. Lowe

Filed under: biography,We call it life — Shane Greenstein @ 8:37 am

All students of the computer industry have heard of Bill Lowe, the leader of an IBM Boca Raton facility that launched the IBM PC. That launch was a signal event in computing. It catalyzed growth in the small systems market.

William C. LoweI had the great pleasure to interview Bill a few years ago for a research project comparing the response of large firms to external events (Tim Bresnahan, Shane Greenstein, and Rebecca Henderson, 2012. “Schumpeterian Economies and Diseconomies of Scope: Illustrations from the Histories of IBM and Microsoft,” The Rate and Direction of Technical Change, 50 Year Anniversary, Edited by Josh Lerner and Scott Stern, University of Chicago Press. Pp 203-276.)

The news this morning announced Bill Lowe’s passing. I am greatly saddened to learn of his passing, and my sympathies go to his many friends and family. He had a unique role in computing history. In this post I would like to share a few memories of those interviews.


May 12, 2013

The revolution will be televised: A teaching moment.

Filed under: Amusing diversions,biography,Essays,We call it life — Shane Greenstein @ 10:02 pm

As a parent I view the modern era of hyper-connection as an infinite opportunity for teaching moments. My children humor my pursuit, bless them. I do worry that they perceive their father’s aspirations as random outbursts of unconnected insights, barely Gil-Scott-Heron-002 (1)distinguishable from the indecipherable utterings in Ezekiel’s visions, and vested with much less authority. Yet, I persist.

On a recent Saturday I became a taxi driver for my oldest son, and drove him home from the gym. Something by Gil-Scott Heron came up on the bop jazz channel on the car’s satellite radio. Heron’s rebellious expressions made him famous, but today the radio played themes of love. It was one of Heron’s earlier and milder pieces.

The jockeys experiment on this channel on the weekends, taking the music to the edges, though this hardly qualified as an edge. Though Heron is not regarded as a jazz pioneer in most circles, the beat poets influenced him, and he borrowed many of their rebellious forms for individualized expressions.

My son stared out the window, rendered silent by one of those adolescent moods in which sentences never exceed three words. Sometimes the mood can last for months.

gil-scott-heron-the-revolution-will-not-be-televisedLooking for an opening, I faked surprise. “Well, look at that.” I said with an upbeat tone, “It is Gil Scott-Heron.” This registered nothing from the passenger seat, not even a curious question, such as “Who is Gil Scott-Heron?” Was my son listening or descending into a month-long silence? He remained motionless.

A father has to be intellectual resourceful at these moments. I gambled, and issued an overstatement that I hoped might catch his attention. “Some people regard Gil Scott-Heron as the father of Hip-Hop and Rap.” If my son was at all paying attention, he would regard this sentence as a stretch, at best. The present song more closely resembled a male rendition of something acceptable to Ella Fiztgerald. Nothing about this love song would suggest such a radical interpretation. Still, the music contained enough rhythm to be catchy. My son stirred, and I sensed he was listening to me.

If the hook was in, then perhaps he would take the bait. “His most famous song was something called ‘The revolution will not be televised.’ Have you ever heard of that?”

“No.” My son shifted his weight while answering. Maybe I had him. This is what passes for a teaching moment in the suburbs.

“I will play it for you when we get home.” I promised, “You might like it.” No sound came from son, and we drove on. (more…)

December 20, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Economics of One Entrepreneur

Filed under: biography,Entrepreneurship — Shane Greenstein @ 10:13 pm

There are no second acts in life, but the American system of entrepreneurship has provided many second chances. That flexibility is, perhaps, one of the greatest strengths of the US system of value creation. For example, a less-flexible system would never have given Apple’s late CEO, Steve Jobs, an opportunity to have much impact later in his career. A market dominated by rigid organizational structures would have denied him entry.

To appreciate this point, it’s necessary to move beyond the managerial maxims many recent eulogies have used to describe Steve Jobs. These have displayed a disappointing degree of plasticity. Look, as a youngster, Jobs displayed a penchant for brashness, impatience, and needless confrontation, just as he did later in life. Two decades ago, the old consensus held that Jobs succeeded in spite of himself, while the recent consensus ascribed Jobs’ commercial success to his passion and attention to detail. The common analysis reassessed superficial traits based on outcomes.

That interpretative flip is a symptom of a deeper schism. Different conceptual frameworks underpin and frame distinct perspectives about the role for entrepreneurs in American business. Steve Jobs’ career can illustrate these perspectives.


October 19, 2009

Oliver Williamson, a gentleman.

Filed under: Amusing diversions,biography,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 11:41 am

The celebration was spontaneous. I walked upstairs to tell my wife I was leaving for work. She was listening to a news radio station, as she does every morning. She told me the Nobel Prize in Economics had been announced. Oliver Williamson had won. Both my hands went in the air and I jumped. It is corny to admit, but I shouted “Yeh!”

There is an old cliché’ about someone being a scholar and a gentleman. While plenty has been said about Oliver Williamson as a scholar, I wish to focus on his character. Sure, his ideas have influenced an entire generation of professional conversations – that is why he won the prize. But that is not why I jumped for joy. I jumped because Williamson has something else – an inspiring touch and an influential approach to intellectual life. I have been fortunate enough – privileged enough – to observe this touch first hand. That has been significant in my professional life.

I do not know how else to make these points other than to share a few personal observations about Williamson. So that is what I will do in this post. Perhaps it will provide a deeper insight into the man. (more…)

April 7, 2008

The long arc behind Bill Gates’ wealth, part 2

Filed under: Bill Gates' retirement,biography,Essays — Shane Greenstein @ 9:08 pm

Did Bill Gates acquire most of his wealth by fair means or foul? Last issue’s column examined the 1980s and early 1990s and largely saw fair actions. A few fell on the border. Today I ask about the mid-1990s and beyond.

What a period this was for Gates. The diffusion of the Internet required a redirection of numerous Microsoft activities. Gates had the skills to lead such an organizational renewal, and he did. Those actions were impressive.


February 7, 2008

The long arc behind Bill Gates’ wealth, part 1

Filed under: Bill Gates' retirement,biography,Essays — Shane Greenstein @ 9:05 pm

In June of 2008, William Gates Jr. will step down as chief software architect at Microsoft and move more of his time to the foundation named for him and his wife. It is a quasi retirement from Microsoft, not a full retirement. Gates intends to come back now and again to help. His June 2006 announcement made headlines, even though most of us—except those who happen to work there—have only a passing interest in the internal machinations of Microsoft. It gained attention because of who said it.

Bill Gates’ life has a unique arc. Gates founded and then managed a company that provides software for personal computers, and, in the process, became unbelievably wealthy, to the tune of $50 billion at last count. Many others got wealthy along with him, Steve Ballmer and Paul Allen, most notably, but Gates’ wealth tops them all, making him comparable to only a small number of other business figures in history—‘‘robber barons’’ in popular speak—such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Bell, and Ford.


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