Richard Rosenbloom, in memory

Richard Rosenbloom passed away on October 26th. He was a gentle soul, a wonderful person, and a insightful scholar. He will be missed. I will miss him.

I had the great fortune to meet him several times. The first of these meetings occurred when I was a student. Those first meetings were informal because his son and I were friendly. He showed up on campus one day, because – as his son said – his father was on sabbatical. I did not appreciate that Rosenbloom was one of the preeminent scholars in the study of innovation. He was merely the father of the person with whom I had studied for comprehensive exams. We shared an office. This was his Dad. There was a family resemblance.

Richard Rosenbloom eventually gave a seminar during that year – it was research about the development of VCRs. I still remember it today. It influenced my views of competition between standards. It came at a formative moment.

I would like to honor his memory in this post.

What actually happened in VCRs?

Rosenbloom wrote about the VCR industry at a time when the academic world was going crazy over the competition between VHS and Betamax. It is hard to appreciate his influence without understanding the context of the contemporary craziness.

Just to remind those who did not live through it: Competition between the formats displayed a characteristic that any watcher of platform competition today would recognize. There were feedbacks between the suppliers and demanders.

More to the point, the designers of the VCR had anticipated that home users would show reruns of TV shows and various versions of home movies. None of them had planned for the rental industry, as it actually emerged, so the feedbacks between rental distribution and hardware distribution occurred outside the control of the prominent firms.

The feedbacks started to matter when the video rental industry sprung up. In brief, it went like this. Users bought hardware, but typically only one format. Video stores carried titles, even in both formats, but favored more titles with the format that reflected the most popular format with local customers.

Little by little, more VHS hardware generated more demand for VHS rentals, which generated more purchases of VHS hardware, and so on. It took a few years, but eventually VHS pushed out Beta altogether.

Two things about this process had a big effect on the academic conversation at the time.

First, Sony lost. This was the era in which Sony seemed to have a magical touch, so the experience ran counter to every expectation about its invincibility.

Second, the feedbacks did not operate overnight. Anybody awake lived through the slow and inexorable decline in Beta titles. It was easy to watch the process — by merely visiting the shelves of the local video store each month and asking video store managers about what they were doing. It was impossible to miss.

There was a third thing about these events, and I hesitate to bring it up. Many observers thought Beta was technically superior. To such people, watching Sony and Beta not succeed was inconsistent with the belief that the best technology always wins. There are still many academics today who cling to this idea, and have never surrendered on any dimension of this proposition.

Indeed, at the time I first met Richard Rosenbloom there were many academics who obsessed over this idea and its opposite. To each side, events in VCRs generated a spirited academic conversation about the nature of competition. The example of VCRs raised questions about whether such competition displayed perverse tendencies, potentially away from efficient outcomes. The debates could get very heated.

(Digression: though this debate was quite popular in my youth, over the years I have learned to have little tolerance for this discussion. Three reasons. First of all, it is obvious to any long-time observer of technology markets that the best technology does not always win. Twenty five different factors matter in most commercial markets in addition to technical superiority. Only a foolish economist or engineer ever centers an analysis on one aspect of a commercial situation, such as a product’s technological prowess. That necessarily ignores all other factors, such as distribution, service, reputation, pricing, etc. Second, it is almost impossible to settle this argument, as an honest empirical proposition, because life rarely arranges the facts in such a way as to deliver a definitive answer. Third, this debate is usually a massive distraction. In virtually any setting where this question arises there are often twenty other issues more worthy of attention. End of digression.)

Into this conversation stepped Richard Rosenbloom and his collaborators (among them the very green Michael Cusumano, who later wrote some pretty interesting stuff about software…). I still remember the seminar well for one reason: Rosenbloom knew what he was talking about – he knew everything there was to know about VCRs, how they had been developed, how they worked, how the various parties had behaved and why, and anything else you might want to know.

Indeed, Rosenbloom was the first scholar I ever heard state with some authority – backed up by interviews and documents – that Sony’s executives and those elsewhere had not anticipated the rental market. He also could explain – again with some authority – why Sony and the designers of the VHS had not worked together: all parties had collaborated on a previous generation of the technology, and Sony burned their partners when the JV lost money, so the partners decided to go in their own direction the next time around.

His seminar was like that. Somebody would ask a question, and Rosenbloom would not speculate idly, like many academics do. He just knew the answers. He had done his homework, and thoroughly, so he just stated the answer without pretention.

Back to the bigger point: Why was that seminar so influential to me? Rosenbloom illustrated by example how and why great applied scholars know every theory and every fact. Great applied scholars just know how every theory does (or does not) fit the facts. Great applied scholars can do that because they go the extra mile, by interviewing executives, by reading multiple reports, by considering every angle, and by remaining skeptical about simple explanations. I can still recall my sense of admiration and appreciation and awe.

Rosenbloom had other ineffable qualities, and these emerged gradually, after I met with him several times. He was gentle, patient, and respectful in dealing with others, even in the face of stupid questions and arrogant questioners. It is hard to appreciate how wonderful it is to meet someone like that without spending time submerged in the insanity of the academy. Just take my word for it: it was like watching someone keep their head while everyone around them lost theirs.

If you would like to know more, here is the obit that the Harvard Business School posted. It is classy. It gets all the key facts right. It is worthwhile to read.

Still, that obit did not quite capture the essence of Richard Rosenbloom. That is why I felt compelled to write this. He was a mensch and a model for many, including me.

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