Memo to Bill Gates

Bill -I know you don't read Dear Bill memos in the media as a rule of thumb, which is why the last time I wrote one of these it was addressed to Steve Ballmer, not you. Then the subject was RSS, and the need to embrace it.
Written by Steve Gillmor, Contributor

Bill -

I know you don't read Dear Bill memos in the media as a rule of thumb, which is why the last time I wrote one of these it was addressed to Steve Ballmer, not you. Then the subject was RSS, and the need to embrace it. Whether you heard us or not, you've done just that.

Now the subject is Attention, and the reasons why you should embrace it are as deeply obvious and demanding as were the ones you so effectively responded to when you brought Ray into the company. It's no secret that Ray is for all intents and purposes running the company now. The "Steve goes if the stock drops below $20" rumors are an unfortunate ValleyWagish analysis of the impact of bringing someone of Ray's caliber in and bifurcating Jim Allchin's role into strategic and operational (Kevin Johnson) segments.

With Ray in place, not only Wall Street but more importantly, you can envision letting the company move forward without your 24/7 focus. That's because you've found that person who, like you, can keep this whole thing in RAM inside your head. This obviously paves the way for a Scott McNealy-like handoff-to-Schwartz, but unfortunately also encourages speculation about Steve as well. Unfortunate because a Ballmer step-down would accelerate Microsoft's troubles at exactly the wrong moment.

Saul Hansell and Eric Lichtblau's article, U.S. Wants Companies to Keep Web Usage Records, in the New York Times yesterday sent a loud wake-up call:

An executive of one Internet provider that was represented at the first meeting said Mr. Gonzales began the discussion by showing slides of child pornography from the Internet. But later, one participant asked Mr. Mueller why he was interested in the Internet records. The executive said Mr. Mueller's reply was, "We want this for terrorism."

At the meeting with privacy experts yesterday, Justice Department officials focused on wanting to retain the records for use in child pornography and terrorism investigations. But they also talked of their value in investigating other crimes like intellectual property theft and fraud, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, who attended the session.

Simply put, the Bush Administration wants you, Google, Yahoo, and every other cloud to retain our attention data, the breadcrumbs we leave as we move about the Net, for up to two years rather than the weeks or months the providers currently hold on to the data. And "wants" is a nuanced word, as the article delineates:

In its current proposal, the department appears to be trying to determine whether Internet companies will voluntarily agree to keep certain information or if it will need to seek legislation to require them to do so.

Not only does this move collide with the goals of major cloud aggregators--Google for one has made it clear they will resist such demands as they have to some extent in the past--but it comes into direct conflict with the most potent wave in today's technology landscape: the user in charge. In a world where we recoil from attempts by spamsters, spyware, and identity thieves to steal our most personal data and use it against us, here comes Big Brother to demand our attention metadata without offering any service in compensation. At least Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo offer us free storage, calendar, or email in return for this data, even if it does go in and doesn't come back out. There is some sort of voluntary contract between users and providers.

Here's where the government bait and switch package starts to tick ominously: First it's about child porn. Everybody's against that. Then it's about terrorism. Ditto. But then, while we've got that data, let's go in and help our friends down at the MPAA and RIAA with their business model problem and police  Intellectual Property "theft." What about peer-to-peer communications filled with inappropriate political concepts? When we've got you by the bitstream, folks, we decide what's OK, not you. 

Slippery slope indeed, and what's more, for a company like yours that has been significantly disrupted by Google and other attention companies, this is not the best time to be pissing off users and their community by caving to the Attorney General of an administration with sub-30 likeability  ratings going into the election.

Contrast this with Ray Ozzie, who marches into the O'Reilly ETech conference and gifts this cool Web clipboard technology and gets nothing but praise and appreciation from this same user community. Citizen Ray hits grandslam on first at bat. What, no aircraft carrier metaphors, 2 years to turn, etc.? Nope, thirty days from idea to demo, and since then a steady stream of reports about wiring in SSE extensions to RSS, and other good messaging from the IE team around RSS. Smart, community-focused, and combined with mainstream media stories about the Ray-led offsite. But I repeat myself: it's clear Ray has the keys to the Live washroom, and Live is not Dead.

So, Bill, here's what I strongly recommend:

  • Do NOT let Steve retire. You don't have his replacement in place like you do yours.
  • Do give Ray your job. Let him do things you agree he should do but that he will be trusted for where you might not.
  • Encourage contribution of attention metadata to an open anonymized pool.

In case you haven't heard, the AttentionTrust, cofounded by Seth Goldtein and me, gifted an attention recorder (ATX) for use with Firefox. I subsequently launched GestureBank to aggregate attention clickstreams in just such an open pool, building on the ATX and adding a randomly-generated user key with the following caveat: You have to contribute to make use of the pool of anonymous data. GestureBank does not own or store the identity key; it is solely under the control of the user. GestureBank's IE recorder goes into alpha release next week.

Therefore, if Attorney General Gonzales downloads the recorder and starts contributing he and any of his team who does so will have access to this data, the very same data that they seem to want to force the providers to retain and surrender. But the user is in control, not the cloud. If the government wants to get a court order, they can get it for the only entity that controls the key: the user.

What's in it for you Bill, or should I say Ray? Community. A reboot of the Passport era. What you're likely to do anyway. An opportunity to fully absorb the disruptive hit Google et al have dealt you and come up to parity with them. How so? Well, for starters, Attention (and Gestures) are the evolution of Google's search model, where individuals seek data from the cloud--to an inversion where the cloud (information) searches for the people who are willing to receive their messages. It's the RSS contract, as is the user in charge contract embodied in the Attention Recorder and the open pool. Google will have to go here too, but they face a similar conundrum to the one you've largely absorbed with the marginalization of Office and its impact on your growth.

What does Microsoft lose from this move? Little in terms of their market position. Office continues to control the enterprise, essentially a dongle for Vista. But coming down dramatically and firmly on the user's side at this moment when Attention is front and center is a gesture that will resonate for years to come. Yahoo is praying you don't do this, because they've been sitting on the opportunity for two years now without having the stones to pull the trigger. Google will join in, just as they have done with RSS/Atom, and everyone else will follow. The only way to stop the government is with everybody rowing in one direction. It's how the movie ratings board held off the Feds.

Attention is your China, Bill, and only you or you, Ray, can go there.

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