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12/21/2003
01:03 AM
John Soat
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Book Review: Software Walks A Fine Line, And Money Talks

The software industry has always represented something of a contradiction. On one hand, software is a product of pure imagination, a new category of business tool that promises to change how people work, even how they live. On the other hand, there's almost no industry as hard-nosed in its business practices, holding customers hostage to their critical business systems and playing a snake-oil-like game, often promising much more than it delivers.

BR_books.jpgTwo new books, taken together, exemplify that contradiction. Inside Intuit: How The Makers Of Quicken Beat Microsoft And Revolutionized An Entire Industry (Harvard Business Press, 2003), is by Suzanne Taylor, an eight-year Intuit veteran, and Kathy Schroeder, a marketing manager. Everyone Else Must Fail: The Unvarnished Truth About Oracle And Larry Ellison (Crown Business, 2003) is by Karen Southwick, a longtime tech-industry reporter.

Literally hatched at Scott Cook's kitchen table, Quicken, Intuit's flagship product, won out in the early DOS days over a slew of competitors in the bill-paying software market simply by being a better product, faster, more intuitive, more customer-focused. The authors make the point repeatedly that the company managed to hold on to its lead, first in the consumer market, then in the small and midsize business market, by holding true to those values. Relentlessly customer-focused, something CEO Cook learned in his early days as a marketing manager at Procter & Gamble, Intuit also fostered a culture of respect and cooperation that created loyal employees and partners, which served the company well in its showdowns with competitors--most notably, of course, Microsoft.

Then there's Oracle. A true reflection of its founder's ambitious, obsessive, self-centered personality, Oracle beat out IBM to create the market for relational databases, much as Microsoft did with PC operating systems. But Oracle faltered in the early 1990s, largely because of its take-no-prisoners attitude, which extended to employees and customers as well as competitors. That legacy, the author says, has never been abandoned because it's deep in the company's, and its founder's, DNA.

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