Book review: Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell

“Genius!”, “Brilliant!”, the book cover says.

Outliers on Amazon
Outliers on Amazon

Yes, the book is fun. Yes, Malcolm Gladwell has an entertaining writing style. “Outliers” points out some interesting facts and figures. It tells the extraordinary story of child prodigy Bill Gates and his road to found one of the greatest companies in our history. It shows you the the unusual circumstances that drove Robert Oppenheimer to the leading position in probably the biggest science project in human history: Project Manhattan. Many other stories follow and Gladwell points to a simple truth: context is everything.

The big idea behind “Outliers” is that nothing matters more than the context. There is no individual motivated enough to rise against the odds and our usual “rags to riches” stories are usually no more than fiction.

Bill Gates would not have succeeded were it not for a series of fortunate events that led him to be one of the few (probably 50) people in the world having access to the technology he used to develop his programming skills.

The 10 000 hours

Add 10 000 hours (Gladwell points out that nothing great is ever achieved without at least 10 000 hrs of practice) to the opportunities someone like Bill Gates had, a lot of self-determination, a strong individual and you get a success story. The point is that we should always look for the details that make up the context.

Such details seem visible in the Beatles’ success as well. Were it not for the time spent in Hamburg performing over 1000 hours live in less than 2 years (most than many bands play live in their entire career) the Beatles would not have had the showmanship, stamina or apparent innate talent that made them probably the biggest band in history.

Is high IQ an indicator of future success?

The book shows what talent or a high IQ can do for an individual. Nothing, basically. In the early 20th century a psychologist named Lewis Terman searched for gifted children, with an IQ of over 135. His “Termites” as the group would later be called were followed throughout their life. Terman tracked their path through life and had seen that theier high IQ was not necessarily an indicator of success in professional life. The adult “Termites” group had an impressive array of accomplishments. However – not all of them. It seemed that a certain “C” group was not very successful. As Terman put it, their lives turned out “disappointing”.

Gladwell outlines the things that made some of the “Termites” successful and others not. It was their upbringing, their social and economic background. Basically if you were to be born in an educated, high income family, you had great chances to become successful. If you had the misfortune to be born in a family where you and your brothers were constantly abused by an alcoholic stepfather, as was the case with Chris Langan, your chances to succeed in our society would dramatically drop.

Outliers – fun to read

Malcolm Gladwell bring several stories together in order force a connection between what we, as society, call success and the context that led to said success. Some of these connections may seem far fetched and sometimes they are. However, the book makes for an entertaining read.

“Outliers” is neither genius nor brilliant. It’s fun and interesting. It gives you some hard data you can show off when meeting your friends over beer but the fact is you will probably forget what was it about 10 months after you’re done reading it. When time’s limited I would rather suggest Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”. It’s fun, well written and you’ll still know what’s it about 2 years after you’ve read it.

Ad-Supported Mac OS? It could have happened.

steve-jobsIt was 1999. Only three years have passed since Steve Jobs returned to Apple. Britney Spears was climbing the charts with “Baby one more time” and engineers at Apple were a few months into launching the Mac OS 9. They would dub it “The Best Internet Operating System Ever”. It was a visionary product and an awesome precursor to today’s Internet-enabled operating systems.

Unlike its direct competitor, Microsoft, Apple had a simpler way of shipping its operating systems. They would either come pre-installed on purchased computers or subjected to a standard $99 upgrade fee.

Source: Insanely Simple - The Obsession that Drives Apple's Success
Source: Insanely Simple – The Obsession that Drives Apple’s Success

Steve Jobs thought he can get more users aboard if he somehow reached out to those yet unwilling to pay for the OS. Ken Segall, the man credited with naming the iMac , recalls how this happened, in his book Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success:

“[…] Steve provided some details about how the advertising would work. At systems start-up, the user would see a sixty-second commercial. This ad could be regularly changed via updates from Apple’s servers. Throughout the rest of the OS, ads would appear in places where they had the most relevance. For example, if the print dialogue box indicated that you were running low on printer ink, you might see an ad from Epson with a link to its store – so you could buy some ink right then and there”. 

The consensus was the main ad, the one running at systems start, would be a premium spot for top-knotch companies. Those Steve admired, say BMW and Nike. Once the ad started running , some system functions would be suspended so the user had to see the whole ad.

Apple engineers and staff were psyched about the idea and they loved the fact that such a new interface could let users try the OS and buy it whenever they felt like upgrading. Apple even registered the patent for this, listing Steve Jobs as the main inventor. Fortunately this system never went public and Apple went on to build its success and later on give out the Maverick OS upgrade for free, but that’s a story for another post.

Apple thought about it, Google and Amazon did it.

Apple was not the only company that thought about the ad-supported OS, but it was the first to seriously consider it.

For starters – like most smartphone users you’ve heard about Android. It’s the most popular mobile OS (or at least the most used). It’s free and it helps Google leverage on mobile ads. So much that it Google now takes in about half of all mobile ads revenue.

Google’s other venture into ad-supported OS is Chrome OS / Chromium OS – the web OS that has Google at its center. And Google’s Ads.

Yeah, both Google and Apple thought about an ad-supported OS. The time-frame, however, is pretty important. Apple thought about the ad-supported OS, it nearly implemented it and ditched it. An year later (2000) Google launches AdWords. After yet another 5 years (2005) Google buys Android. 6 more years passed until Google launched its Chromebooks in 2011.

Amazon, the king of online retail, thought this is a great idea also.It started using it on its Kindle readers in 2011. Later on the Kindle Fire was subsidized through ads. The ad-supported device / OS seemed so good that Amazon didn’t actually bothered to built no-ads versions. Or talk about it.

Apple’s “say no” culture lead to dumping the ad-supported Mac OS

Fortunately Apple scraped the idea and later on figured out an way to give the Mac OS for free (it’s doing pretty well selling apps and music). Its focus on delivering a great user experience finally won. It was Probably Steve Jobs who remembered his own words, spoken at the 1997 Apple World Developers Conference:

“Innovation is saying no to a thousand things”