Mobile // Mobile Devices
Commentary
11/21/2013
08:06 AM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
Commentary
Connect Directly
Google+
LinkedIn
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
100%
0%

10 Historic Tech Memos & Rants

From Ballmer to Jobs, tech leaders write memos, manifestos, and rants that shape how we all think about computing. These 10 provocative statements each have a place in tech history.

Ted Kaczynski, terrorist: The Unabomber Manifesto
Ted Kaczynski, the mathematician who would come to be known as the Unabomber for sending 16 bombs to organizations and individuals between 1978 and 1995, recognized that technology has a dark side. Unfortunately, his answer, blowing people up -- he killed three and injured many others -- was counterproductive and criminal. It was also hypocritical: Protesting the social consequences of technology with explosive devices would be absurd if it weren't so sad.

Even so, his rambling 35,000-word manifesto is worth a look for anyone in the technology business. That's because Kaczynski's fundamental distrust of technology is something that many technical experts wrestle with, in a more rational form. In 2000, Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun, wrote about the perils of technology in an article for Wired, citing Kaczynski's concerns and putting them into a more coherent frame.

"The new Pandora's boxes of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics are almost open, yet we seem hardly to have noticed," Joy wrote. "Ideas can't be put back in a box; unlike uranium or plutonium, they don't need to be mined and refined, and they can be freely copied. Once they are out, they are out."

Consider this passage from Kaczynski, which is relevant to increasing concerns that automated improvements to productivity are limiting job growth:

It may be that machines will take over most of the work that is of real, practical importance, but that human beings will be kept busy by being given relatively unimportant work. It has been suggested, for example, that a great development of the service industries might provide work for human beings. Thus people would spend their time shining each other's shoes, driving each other around in taxicabs, making handicrafts for one another, waiting on each other's tables, etc.

Industry boosters argue there's no need to worry, that technology creates more than it takes away. What if they're wrong?

Richard Stallman, programmer: How Much Surveillance Can Democracy Withstand?
President of the Free Software Foundation and founder of the free/libre GNU operating system, Richard Stallman has been one of the most important voices in software development over the past three decades.

His uncompromising insistence that software must support user freedom is more relevant than ever in the mobile era, as hardware and software restrictions impinge upon what individuals can do with their devices and what they can do with the content they buy.

Stallman supports "the freedom to run [software], to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes." His approach isn't right for everyone. But the tech world is better off for his crusade.

He deserves the MacArthur Foundation Genius grant he received in 1990.

Many of his writings over the years merit consideration. But his recent Wired.com opinion column is essential reading for anyone who uses computers or stores data in the cloud:

If we don't want a total surveillance society, we must consider surveillance a kind of social pollution, and limit the surveillance impact of each new digital system just as we limit the environmental impact of physical construction.

Tomi T. Ahonen, author: Open Letter to Microsoft: Delusional Complacency with Mobile Strategy
Known for his astute observations of the mobile industry, Ahonen's assessment of Microsoft's problems is spot on.

Consider this passage:

Google CEO Eric Schmidt went public in May of 2005 in the Financial Times, stating that the future of his company's business was on mobile. Apple's CEO Steve Jobs, when announcing the iPhone in January of 2007, dropped the word "computer" from the company corporate name to underline how significant the shift to mobile phones was for Apple's business...

Yet years after those visible rivals of his own industry, the CEO of Microsoft says, "Mobile is hot but the truth is nobody sells very much."

Ahonen wrote this in 2009. It would take Microsoft four years to realize new leadership was required. If only there had been some global communications network by which Microsoft could have learned of its missteps before now.

Steve Jobs, Apple: Thoughts on Flash
Apple may have struck the blow that sealed the fate of Adobe's Flash technology, but Flash wasn't healthy to begin with. For all the sophistry in Steve Jobs's justification for banning Flash on iOS devices, his fundamental critique was sound: Flash just didn't work very well on mobile devices, never mind Jobs's annoyance with Adobe for being uninterested in OS X for a decade.

But the correctness of Jobs's critique of Flash isn't as interesting as the rhetorical power of his prose. Above all else, Jobs was a skillful salesman. Had he been a cable channel marketer, he could have sold Snuggies and Chia Pets by the millions. Had his letter been titled, "Why We Beat Kittens," chances are you'd have come away from it nodding your head in agreement.

Yet Jobs's letter is full of hypocrisy, an issue identified by many observers.

Jobs himself identifies third-party software layers as "the most important reason" Flash must be prohibited.

We know from painful experience that letting a third-party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in substandard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. If developers grow dependent on third-party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers.

Flash died because it was a threat to Apple's control of its platform. Yet third-party software frameworks are alive and well. Apps created by third-party software platforms are thriving, and Apple is, too. Many popular apps in the iTunes App Store were created with tools like Unity3D, Phone Gap, Corona SDK, and Appcelerator Titanium/Platino, to name but a few cross-platform development options.

That's a glimmer of the reality distortion field Jobs was said to radiate.

Some additional memos of note:

There's no single migration path to the next generation of enterprise communications and collaboration systems and services, and Enterprise Connect delivers what you need to evaluate all the options. Register today and learn about the full range of platforms, services, and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. Register with code MPIWK and save $200 on the entire event and Tuesday-Thursday conference passes or for a Free Expo pass. It happens in Orlando, Fla., March 17-19.

Previous
3 of 3
Next
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Page 1 / 2   >   >>
jgherbert
50%
50%
jgherbert,
User Rank: Ninja
11/30/2013 | 11:42:51 PM
Re: Microsoft & Mobile
@WKash:
"it is interesting to see the foresight of Bill Gates about the coming tidal wave of the Internet"

It's funny how with a lack of context, Bill Gates looks foresightful. The reality is that Microsoft ignored the Internet for way too long. Think about it; Microsoft launched IE in 1995, but was beaten to the punch by Mosaic, Lynx, Cello, Arena and tkWWW to name but a few. Even by IE4, Microsoft only had 18% of the browser market - it was a Johnny-come-lately in terms of the Internet, and while it gained eventual dominance after integrating IE into the OS, as I recall, that particular memo demonstrated Bill Gates' late realization that if Microsoft did not jump on the growing Internet wave, they would be left behind.

If you look at it that way, Microsoft screwed up by understimating the importance of the Internet and having to play catch up, and then did exactly the same for mobility.
WKash
50%
50%
WKash,
User Rank: Author
11/22/2013 | 10:20:06 AM
Microsoft & Mobile
While these memos are slices of time, it is interesting to see the foresight of Bill Gates about the coming tidal wave of the Internet -- and how Microsoft just didn't seem to get the mobile tidal wave that would follow.  Have to agree with the observation here:  "Seeing a tidal wave doesn't make you a better swimmer"
Li Tan
50%
50%
Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
11/21/2013 | 11:03:53 PM
Re: Microsoft mobile rant
To improve its visibility and get the solid footprint in mobile market, MS has the alliance with Nokia on WP platform. But after few years, the WP platform is still not so popular. I have echo Stephen's memo - the platform is still burning. I am not a mobile platform nerd to predict the future but I do believe there is still long way to go for WP in this competitive market.
Thomas Claburn
50%
50%
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 6:42:40 PM
Re: Why Google?
@David, While we await one of these from a high-ranking Amazon insider, the one cited at the end of page 3 from Amazon contract worker Steven Barker is worth reading.

http://www.geekwire.com/2013/open-letter-jeff-bezos-contract-workers-amazoncom/

"But if you really want to create a positive work environment and generate productivity and employee loyalty, give your employees some job security."
Shane M. O'Neill
50%
50%
Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 4:50:58 PM
Re: Microsoft mobile rant
Ray Ozzie's "Dawn of a New Day" exit memo three years ago warned that Microsoft was not prepared for the post-PC world. I think that one actually motivated Ballmer. But he moved too slow.
GIGABOB
50%
50%
GIGABOB,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/21/2013 | 4:34:18 PM
Re: Microsoft mobile rant
We talk about "Rants vs Memos" - implying that in a memo a policy change was made that altered the direction of the company - but with a "Rant" the problems were articulated - but the company failed to act.  Microsoft got their visionary memo, changed policy to embrace and extend the internet - then Bill retired and the company coasted.  They needed another memo - but nobody was around to write it. With Elop at Nokia, he was right, but the company was too far out in the North Atlantic to rescue.  Note that the same memo/rant was not provided to Blackberry and the outcome was the same.

Another point - Bill's memo is now nearly 20 years old.  Its core idea that the Internet would be a PC enabler was quite astute at the time.  I can't penalize him for not clearly articulating that in 10 years the Intel strategy of evolving a synthesis between comms and compute would be realized so that the bulk of everyday PC functions could be performed on a phone.  I guess he may have expected that there would be a course correction or guidance coming from the top as time marched on.  Too bad Microsoft ended up getting M-Ballmerized.
Shane M. O'Neill
50%
50%
Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 11:06:00 AM
Microsoft mobile rant
Given Microsoft's stumbles and struggles in the mobile market over the last four years, Ahonen's rant was deadly accurate. Ballmer et al did not take smartphones seriously enough. In '09, the tablet frenzy hadn't happened yet, but the iPad's appearance a year later would only escalate Microsoft's mobile cluelessness. Meanwhile, Android's sudden popularity poured more gas on the fire. The "me too" Microsoft mobile products rolled out in 2011 - present. But very late to the party. I'm sure Ballmer is kicking himself.
David F. Carr
50%
50%
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 10:15:49 AM
Why Google?
Terrific roundup, but why start with two slamming Google? I guess they're also a couple of the most recent out of this bunch.

I have to wonder a bit about the companies we haven't seen these from, like a rant from an Amazon.com employee. Based on recent profiles, it might be that Jeff Bezos is too scary of a boss to diss while you're on the payroll.
Joe Stanganelli
100%
0%
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
11/21/2013 | 10:12:26 AM
Re: Peanut butter
In that sense, the issue with the tidal wave was less that they didn't know to swim; it was that they didn't know where the tidal wave was coming from or landing.  At that time, the focus was on NCs ("Network Computers"), which failed marvelously.  (They are, in a way, making a small comeback though via Google, repackaged as "Chromebooks").  I suspect this is what Gates was probably referring to at the time.

But mobile?  Yes, the ball was certainly dropped.
Joe Stanganelli
IW Pick
100%
0%
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
11/21/2013 | 10:08:17 AM
Apps
The thing about Apple, Flash, and third-party apps is that when we look at iTunes apps, Android apps, and Facebook apps, they are mere commodities.  They are prolific, replaceable, and non-essential.  Flash, however, is not a commodity.  It is a platform unto itself.

So I wouldn't go so far as to say Jobs was wrong here.  You said it yourself: the threat from Flash was to Apple's control of its own platform.  "Commodity" apps don't typically carry such a threat, but Flash (and similar applications) did and do.
Page 1 / 2   >   >>
Building A Mobile Business Mindset
Building A Mobile Business Mindset
Among 688 respondents, 46% have deployed mobile apps, with an additional 24% planning to in the next year. Soon all apps will look like mobile apps and it's past time for those with no plans to get cracking.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
InformationWeek Tech Digest - July 22, 2014
Sophisticated attacks demand real-time risk management and continuous monitoring. Here's how federal agencies are meeting that challenge.
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
InformationWeek Radio
Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.