10 Historic Tech Memos & Rants - InformationWeek
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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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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.

Stephen Elop, Nokia: Burning Platform Memo
What is it that CEOs do to warrant the millions many receive in compensation? One task they've embraced with enthusiasm is the issuance of memos. A few months after taking the helm of Nokia in 2010, Stephen Elop issued his Burning Platform Memo, so named because he compares the plight of change-averse Nokians to that of workers on a burning North Sea oil platform, facing either a plunge into icy waters or immolation.

In his parable, the man standing on the burning platform jumps into the water and is rescued. If only it were that easy. Britain's Health and Safety Executive, similar in function to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the US, estimates that survival time in North Sea water ranges from minutes to an hour or so, for the particularly fit or prepared.

Had the man in Elop's tale bothered to look over his shoulder, he might have called for a rescue from the nearby Android oil platform. Its owner probably would have sent a boat or a helicopter to assist in the evacuation.

Metaphorical inconsistencies aside, Nokia needed a wakeup call.

How did we get to this point? Why did we fall behind when the world around us evolved?

This is what I have been trying to understand. I believe at least some of it has been due to our attitude inside Nokia. We poured gasoline on our own burning platform. I believe we have lacked accountability and leadership to align and direct the company through these disruptive times. We had a series of misses. We haven't been delivering innovation fast enough. We're not collaborating internally.

Nokia, our platform is burning.

Fittingly enough, the company survived by selling its devices and services business to Microsoft in a fire sale.

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft: One Microsoft
In July, Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, began the reorganization that should've happened a decade earlier. In essence, the plan is to act in a more concerted fashion, with each Microsoft product enhancing the value of other products. The idea is neatly encapsulated in the title, One Microsoft.

We are rallying behind a single strategy as one company -- not a collection of divisional strategies. Although we will deliver multiple devices and services to execute and monetize the strategy, the single core strategy will drive us to set shared goals for everything we do. We will see our product line holistically, not as a set of islands.

Having been based for decades at One Microsoft Way, Microsoft is only now living up to its address. Apple and Google, each in its own way, have demonstrated far more competence at singular focus.

The problem Microsoft faces is that it inhabits two worlds -- the business world and the consumer world -- and the company's misunderstanding of the mobile revolution has alienated too many of the latter group.

Only a month later, Ballmer announced his plan to retire. Since then, the company's stock has been drifting upward. More so even than One Microsoft, "Microsoft, Minus One" sounds promising.

Bill Gates, Microsoft: The Internet Tidal Wave
In 1995, Bill Gates wrote an internal memo to Microsoft employees alerting them to the fact that the Internet would change everything. "The Internet is a tidal wave," Gates concluded. "It changes the rules."

Then the new rules changed. Consider this insight: "I think that virtually every PC will be used to connect to the Internet and that the Internet will help keep PC purchasing very healthy for many years to come."

Gates was right, until quite recently. PC sales peaked in 2011, with 363 million units, according to IDC. Since then, demand for traditional PCs has declined, thanks to mobile phones and tablets.

If you look over The Internet Tidal Wave, the absence of one term stands out: "Mobile" doesn't occur once. Putting network-connected computers in people's pockets changed the nature of the tidal wave.

Also striking is Gates's blindness with regard to search engines. He mentioned search as something interesting, but only in the context of unifying Microsoft's products. It would be Google that turned search into the command line for the web. Gates appears not to have even considered the potential impact of advertising on the economics of software.

As it happened, the nightmare scenario Gates described eventually came true.

One scary possibility being discussed by Internet fans is whether they should get together and create something far less expensive than a PC which is powerful enough for Web browsing. This new platform would optimize for the datatypes on the Web. Gordon Bell and others approached Intel on this and decided Intel didn't care about a low cost device so they started suggesting that General Magic or another operating system with a non-Intel chip is the best solution.

General Magic itself did not realize Gates's fears, but its employees did. Tony Fadell, who led the teams that created the iPod and the iPhone, worked at General Magic before he went to Apple. And Andy Rubin, who helped create Android and oversaw Android after Google acquired his company, Danger, also worked at General Magic. What's more, the device that rode in on the Internet tidal wave, the iPhone, relied on a non-Intel chip: an ARM-based processor from Samsung.

Seeing a tidal wave doesn't make you a better swimmer.

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Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 9:48:56 AM
Will These Still Happen?
Do you think the days of big-tech executives, even staffers, being this candid are over, or at least ending? An example is how "politician-like" many execs are now, and that these are more and more publically traded companies, where it's just not OK to let it all hang out, unless you want the SEC breathing down your neck.
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 9:37:27 AM
Re: Peanut butter
Apart from thinking that peanut butter is the most vile food on the planet, I love this piece. I love it when senior executives tell it like it is, or at least what they really think. Unfortunately, many of these rants came after the execs had moved on. The Google exec's public criticism of his own company, while he was there, and Google's decision to not cover it up say a lot (positive) about the company.
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 9:11:31 AM
Re: Peanut butter
People respect people who call it like it is. In the peanut butter case, he was right.

But this is one of my favorite passages, re the Gates memo: "If you look over The Internet Tidal Wave, the absence of one term stands out: "Mobile" doesn't occur once." And here we are in the middle of the MS Surface dilemma. Imagine if Bill Gates and Michael Dell had built the first big tablet, instead of Steve Jobs.

User Rank: Apprentice
11/21/2013 | 9:10:28 AM
"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."

It's rather skillful that a rant about keeping proprietary control was essentially wrapped up in the exact same arguement against another company
Kristin Burnham
Kristin Burnham,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 8:58:49 AM
Peanut butter
I think Brad Garlinghouse's peanut butter memo is great. Straight to the point and effective (though I have to disagree with his particular stance on peanut butter itself).
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