I've finally managed to choke my way through David Sheff's Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World (1999; Random House Digital), which is a fairly dense history of Nintendo, focusing primarily on how they took over the North American market after the 'great videogame crash of 1983'. Unfortunately, I say 'choke through' because I didn't think that the book was particularly good, partially because it doesn't seem to be quite sure of what kind of story it wants to tell (it's got some long, rather uninteresting tangents and unreferenced, 'editorialized' claims). It also stumbles into a few other issues that I've regularly encountered in the odd historical narrative I've read. So, rather than discuss the book itself - which I'm sure won't interest most people - I'd rather use it as a springboard for a larger discussion.
I'm certain that writing a complex history, be it about a single individual, a company, or even a country, is a difficult and daunting task. Books (unless they're written by Terry Pratchett) are organized into sections, and each section is typically centered around a theme or idea. As most of us know, history isn't so neat. One problem is simply historical demarcation: You may date the beginning of the Renaissance to some specific period of the 14th century, but you'd be hard pressed to have noticed a big change if you were living in Florence at the time. Another issue is that multiple major events may be occurring concurrently. If you divide them into separate chapters, you often unintentionally give them the appearance of being much more unrelated than they actually were.
A good author may be able to overcome such issues, but the big killer for me is that of context. The actual state of what was going on around any narrative is absolutely necessary to any interpretation of the past. Without it decisions can seem inexplicable, and events can seem completely random, etc. If you're jumping back and forth in time so that you can parcel your story into neat little concepts, it's easy to lose sight of what the external circumstances were during any given period. This can be brutal, especially in a book about such a fast moving field as technology.
Another issue that specifically applies to narratives about the near-past is solipsism. It's quite common for individuals to narrate the broader themes of history from their own particular experiences. But such a perspective is a disservice to the reader, especially in an ostensibly 'researched' book. For instance, if I were to write a book about computers right now, based only on what I saw while working in the San Francisco Bay Area among academics, I'd probably argue the Apple was the world's dominant PC manufacturer and that 40% of America's population were hipsters. Global markets need to be put into a global context.
Finally, I'd like to bring up a pet peeve of mine that probably has a lot to do with my training as a scientist. It's not really part of the 'historical narrative' per se, but it does tend to show up in the conclusions of a lot of these books about companies or individuals. Let me set it up as a question: Has any piece of hype or prediction from a corporate exec in a tech company ever really come close to becoming reality? I mean like, become realized within say 10 years of when it was predicted to occur? Seriously, I've read countless stories in which executives talk about the 'world of the future', where your fridge communicates with your watch and 'multimedia' becomes the new reality, blah, blah, blah. While the wheels of progress grind ahead inexorably, in the short term, new technology is pretty much the same as old technology, only slightly prettier and a bit faster.
Here's the rub: I'm not criticizing execs for trying to peddle their wares, but rather I'm dumbfounded by how people fall for the hype every single time. I long ago decided that 90% of everything a corporate suit says is BS, and I've taken a wait-and-see approach to every new claim about how 'thing X will be nothing short of a revolution!' And yet, so many technology writers parrot the same junk to their followers. If you're going to end your book with a prediction, how about you stick to the old standbys that pretty much explain everything - price and market. It's tough to predict the future, of course, but I didn't need the title of 'market analyst' to tell you that no one wanted to pay huge sums of money so that their families could sit on the on the couch wearing stupid-looking glasses and watch 3D TVs, for example. I also don't need a book to tell me what the suits are screaming to the press.