Microsoft, Home Depot pull a GM with its failed book-scanning effort

They say give a man a fish and he has food for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will have food for the rest of his life. Well I say, teach an American car company how to make an SUV and it will have lots of money for a day, a year, or even several years. But teach American car company executives economics and maybe a little geology and they will have an expanding business for generations. I hope it's not too la

They say give a man a fish and he has food for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will have food for the rest of his life.

Well I say, teach an American car company how to make an SUV and it will have lots of money for a day, a year, or even several years. But teach American car company executives economics and maybe a little geology and they will have an expanding business for generations. I hope it's not too late for the U.S. automakers, but maybe that ship has sailed.

Nevertheless, the advice still has lots of truth in it for the rest of us. Including Microsoft, which has made the same mistake as the automakers.

Microsoft is shutting down its very ambitious attempt to scan in every book in the entire world and make them available for search with its Live Search Books and Live Search Academic projects.

What went wrong?

The same short-sightedness that afflicts the car industry. Live Search Books was a fish for its customers. A giant, unwieldy whale -- useless to most people -- that serves a very limited audience.

Instead Microsoft should be doing at least one of two things.

Number one in my book would be trying to gain an understanding of why Google search is so popular. Not in terms of an easy-to-use UI but going deeper to understand why search itself has become, almost overnight, part of our culture. Part of a world culture.

Search represents a need for answers, but why is that significant?

It goes without saying that Microsoft should have focused all its attention on building a fantastic, easy-to-use search engine that would offer something everyone can use for any purpose.

While you may nod in agreement and shake your head in chagrin at GM and Microsoft, I would suggest that you look at your own company and see if it doesn't harbor some of the same short-sighted attitudes. Is your company buying point solutions rather than trying to figure out what the bigger issues are?

To me, it seems that the American business has lost its competitive edge.

Here's another example of the same issue: Home Depot's CEO is using the slowdown in the housing market as the excuse for not meeting its quarterly forecasts.

"The housing and home improvement markets remained difficult in the first quarter; in fact, conditions worsened in many areas of the country," said Frank Blake, chairman and CEO.

I say, shame on him.

Why wasn't Home Depot planning on this day months and months ahead of time when the economy first showed signs of weakness? Why, for example, hadn't Home Depot used all the data it had on its millions of customers to send out targeted e-mails and flyers to promote home improvement classes in every store, with a discount to those who attend, on how to install flooring, build a deck, or renovate a kitchen?

Those of us in high tech may just have a skill that the sales and marketing executives could use. High tech has always been enamored with the idea of being able to run "what if" scenarios.

But there is obviously a disconnect between what IT knows and what sales and marketing knows.

Sales and marketing, it appears, goes for the fish of the day and seems to keep extending bait until the pond is fished out.

On the other hand, it is incumbent upon IT -- which has been trained to look further down the road, such as with capacity planning, risk management, business continuity -- to put itself in the game and take some responsibility for strategic management and planning rather than staying on the operational sidelines.

Businesses should act that way as a rule, and use that IT resource to do so.

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