Over the summer I attended a baseball game at Seattle’s glorious Safeco Field.
The Mariners hosted the White Sox and it was a brilliant match of what’s known as “small ball,” in baseball parlance.
This style of play is similar to current trends in the technology industry.
Small ball is all about offence and constant movement. There’s a lot of hit and run plays, base stealing, and constant pitch-by-pitch strategy. There’s rarely a home run or even a big hit. Small ball is all about getting your runners home, one by one.
This is my favourite style of baseball. It’s fast, intelligent, and exciting. While a big hit by Barry Bonds is certainly a site to behold, those moments don’t come around much.
Instead, with small ball it’s all about constant bursts of action that can take place anywhere on the field. You never know what to expect, and you never know who will commit a key play.
The technology business is deep in a small ball era that’s a lot like this: things are moving fast, new trends are emerging, and you never know where the next big advancement will come from.
This is very different from the monotonous years that were owned by the heavy hitters.
Through the 90s we waited patiently for sluggers like Microsoft and Dell to step up to plate and knock one out of the park.
The infrequent, major releases of new versions of the Windows operating system are classic examples of this style of game play.
The focus of those home run years was on colossal product releases that were forced upon users whether they really liked them or not.
The last few years have been all about small, fast plays that have allowed fleet-footed players, inspired by the grassroots open source software community and enabled by the internet, to sneak past those hulking, steroid-driven spotlight-seekers.
The current small ball mentality is all about keeping users happy by satisfying their wants and needs directly in small, incremental steps.
Dell recently learned all about small ball the hard way.
Through the 90s Michael Dell built his namesake into a lean, mean, home run machine that literally took over the computer hardware industry.
The company was famous for its highly efficient system that delivered an endless stream of clone PCs to desktops around the world.
It didn’t matter what kind of computer you wanted.
You got whatever Dell produced, which was generally black and boxy.
Michael Dell, figuring he’d build the perfect home run machine stepped out of the CEO role at Dell Computers in 2004. His big shoes were filled by Kevin Rollins, a loyal disciple dedicated to carrying the Dell way on in perpetuity.
Nobody seemed to notice, however, that the small ball era was in full swing.
Consumers were demanding more than just those stoic Dalekesque corporate hand-me-downs.
They wanted something for their homes that didn’t remind them of the cubicle farm they spent their day in.
They wanted cool machines: the very antithesis of Dell’s home run products.
Apple kicked the small ball home computer game into high gear with their never-ending parade of crowd-pleasing iPods and super sexy laptops. HP and Sony are two other small ball hardware players.
Dell’s getting back in the game now, but they had to fire company man Rollins and pull Michael Dell out of early retirement to do it.
The company is currently hyping a colourful line of consumer-oriented laptops that stress how people use technology to express their individuality.
Microsoft is heading for some growing pains, too, that resemble Dell’s troubles. Founder Bill Gates is moving out the door and a bald microclone called Steve Ballmer is climbing into the driver’s seat.
Unfortunately, Ballmer’s approach to technology seems to be stuck in the 90s.
And that means, in a lot of ways, Microsoft is the Barry Bonds of software technology.
They can’t bunt, suck at base running, can’t steal, and are loathe to sacrifice anything, much less an out to advance a fellow player.
They are almost completely dependent on their home runs products like Windows when they play.
The small ball era demands frequent, market-responsive plays that keep consumers interested and engaged.
Nobody has the patience to spend years waiting for the slugger to knock it out of the park anymore.
Take Microsoft and Windows.
In 2001 they released their last home run, Windows XP. It took 6 years for them to hit another: Vista. (Some would dispute they swung too early, however, and pushed that one just outside the left field foul post.)
In comparison, since 2001, Apple has released 4 major versions of the Mac OS and Red Hat Fedora managed over 8 major upgrades to Linux.
While Windows users suffered through a long half-decade with a stagnant, decrepit XP operating system, Apple and Red Hat were responding to user demands with frequent, incremental improvements and fixes.
That’s small ball: strategic, satisfying plays that advances the team rather than one heavy swing that may or may not connect.
The benefits of small ball are clear: making a mistake has a minimal impact. You’re still in the game with runners on base.
A slugger’s errors have much greater consequence and are more prone to failure. Vista clearly wasn’t the home run Microsoft was aiming for and they seem to be out of at-bats.
Microsoft recently celebrated its 30th anniversary at Safeco Field. Over 17,000 employees crowded onto the field to take part in various activities.
Maybe they should have just sat in the stands and let the Mariners take the field.
They might have learned something about how to play some small ball.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 28, 2007.