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.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

November 21, 2013

6 Min Read

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:

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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