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Some Q & A concerning Jaron and Microsoft    
This is a little long, but if you're interested enough to read about this at all, you probably want the details...

What’s this I hear about you working for Microsoft these days?  Did Microsoft influence the book?

To be absolutely clear:  The book expresses my personal opinion, and no one at Microsoft read it before I turned it in to the publisher.  Since it is an expansion of some of my well-known essays, like Digital Maoism or the Half Manifesto, everyone inside and out of Microsoft knew more or less what it would be about. 

When the book was completed I had no idea I would become so closely involved with Microsoft later on.  It came as more of a shock to me than you might think, because I haven’t ever had a job with a real company before.   I have had the Microsoft gig for about a half-year now.  To my amazement, it’s going great.  I don’t think any other major  tech company would tolerate someone like me writing the way I do, so I think this is a great indication of positive qualities in Microsoft’s current culture.

Does anyone at Microsoft tend to agree with the positions you take in the book?  

It isn’t what we usually talk about!  But when the topic comes up, it depends on the individual person.  I would say that on average what I hear is that a particular person there agrees strongly with some of what I say, and disagrees strongly with other things, but overall feels that they have benefitted from thinking about my provocations.  That’s the strongest compliment for my writing that I can hope for.  (I find it a little disappointing when someone agrees with me completely, since I find myself disagreeing with things I have said in the past as time goes on.  I want to connect with thinkers, not accrue fans or followers, as is the fashion in these supposedly socially-networked times.  And Microsoft has a decent, tough, honest culture in that way.)

 What do you do at Microsoft?

My role at Microsoft is to make technology, not to discuss the very biggest picture, which is what I do in the book.  It annoys me that I am sometimes categorized as being “anti-technology” when I am in fact a completely committed technologist.  Microsoft happens to be a unique gathering of superb technologists who are in an amazing position to bring about wonderful developments.  No other company has both a cloud and a gaming platform, for just one example.    Who else could bring out Natal?  Look at the types of technology I have worked on for decades, then look at Microsoft’s’ current people, resources, and market positions, and the nature of the attraction should be clear.

Do you have a conflict of interest?

I have so many conflicts of interest in Silicon Valley that I think I end up suspended in mid-air, perfectly balanced and objective.  Or at least I hope so.

For instance, I was the chief scientist of a company that Google bought, and have probably had more financial incentives to speak favorably about Google in recent years than about its competitors.

As for Microsoft specifically, there might be some conflicts of interest, but there are also counter-interests, and I think on balance the result is a wash.  Microsoft is playing the same game I am criticizing, in some cases, while in other cases it is playing a game I advocate in the book.  For instance, I am not so hot on advertising to fund the Internet, which tends to be Bing’s business, while I am all for paid content, which tends to be XBOX’s business. 

One can and should play different roles in a society at the same time.  You can play by the existing rules in order to make your living, even while you might be advocating for a change in the rules as a citizen.  Sometimes the rules need to change for everyone at once, if they are to change at all, and that’s why you can’t always unite these two activities.

For instance, I find it creepy that there is such a dominant cloud-based advertising referral service at the moment, for the many reasons I explain in the book.  I don’t hold that against the individuals who maintain it: The Google founders and many major figures within that company have been friends for years, from before they found such extreme success.  But I do think the current situation is unhealthy. 

One way to address my discomfort as a citizen is to advocate a reconsideration of whether “content” really should be free and mashable, while advertising must be protected in a fortress and made the center of all intellectual economic activity.  That’s what the book is for. 

On the other hand, maybe just helping to improve the standing of a competing cloud would be another path to a less out-of-balance situation:  That’s why I feel good about helping out with Bing when I get a chance.   Is there a contradiction in there?  Maybe to a degree, but there is also uncertainty about the best way to improve the way things are, and I think of it more as covering all the bases.

Didn’t you used to criticize Microsoft more than you do now?

There’s some truth to that, though it’s worth appreciating some nuance.

The conflicts between tech companies are to a degree a form of theater that is hopefully entertaining to someone out there, but in practice, the roles and natures of the various tech companies change over time, and individual people move around between them.   So I’d like to talk about Microsoft and me in a historical context.

Back in the mid-1980s, I was part of a young generation of computer scientists trying to figure out how to properly conceive of computers for the benefit of the real world.  Here’s the cover of the very first book put out by Microsoft press.  (This image of me is one of the few that exists without dreadlocks.  I tried for a short while to fight the genetic intent of my hair, but it was too much work, so shortly after this sketch was created, the locks were back.)  programmers at work coverAmazingly, I am working today with a significant number of the people who were part of the conversation back then.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I got angry with Microsoft.  For me, it was about the software.  I was unhappy that Windows wasn’t more stable, and so on.  When I hear from Microsoft haters these days, I often think to myself, “Man, these kids don’t even know how it’s done.”  

I was a founding contributing editor of Wired magazine, and wrote what was at the time a rather extreme piece, potentially for the premier issue.  Kevin Kelly, the original Editor in Chief, decided not to run it, in part, I suspect, because it wasn’t well written, and also just maybe because someone mentioned to him that Microsoft might turn out to be a significant advertiser someday… 

But at any rate, this was passed around Silicon Valley quite a lot, and I think it was the first articulation of how a cloud-based strategy could challenge Microsoft.  Also found here is the first description of those aspects of Google that don't make much money in a direct way.  (I wasn't diabolical enough to foresee that advertising would actually be placed at the center of all human online activity.)  This tract is blemished by vaguely socialist nonsense.  I also underestimated the software challenge to an insane degree, but we all thought we had infinite powers back then. 

In the box below you'll find that infamous text in the form that was passed around…  Was written when the web and html were brand new…  has never been published before….

(Some terms to help the very young read this alien document:  Mosaic was the first browser, and there wasn't a category of "browsers" yet.  "Gore" means Al Gore who, all jokes aside, was in fact the prime driver in bringing scattered network resources together into the Internet.  Eudora was an email client.) 


At the same time, I was a founding member of the small society of activists that created the ideology that I criticize in the book.  Here are some examples…

What changed?

As I explain in the book, enough time has passed that I have had a chance to see how one possible utopia is starting to play out, and it is plain that it isn’t working.  Empiricism guided my overall shift.

On another front, Microsoft’s software got good.   A part of me is unhappy that we’re still using windows-style software at this late date (instead of, say, some vivid sort of virtual reality.)  If, however, you’re going to use software of the familiar kind, Windows 7 is unquestionably the best there’s ever been.  I run Snow Leopard and various LINUX machines at home, and they’ve all been annoyances in comparison.  Since I actually do care about software, this means something to me.  (FYI, I am still using an iPhone for now; am not biased in my personal choices.)

Finally, the overall role of Microsoft has shifted in the world, for a lot of reasons, ranging from regulatory actions to market evolution.  The negative feelings I used to have about the company became obsolete.  Instead, I think Microsoft as it is today has more potential and incentive to make software that's good for people than any other company.


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