About 20 years ago, Nathan Myhrvold, again Microsoft’s arch technology officer, composed a 20,000-word allotment of adumbrate blue-blooded “Road Kill on the Advice Highway” that reads as beginning today as it did then.
One of abounding memos the polymath was churning out for Microsoft bossman Bill Gates at the time, “Road Kill” deserves our renewed absorption for at atomic three reasons: 1) abounding of the market, media and tech dislocations Myhrvold predicted accept appear true, so he’s owed acclaim for his sharpness; 2) the tech armament Myhrvold articular accept affiliated their romp, authoritative some of his come-true predictions alike truer as time has passed; and 3) admitting Microsoft accepted abundant of his futurology at the time, it still absent the bazaar in abounding places area companies like Google, Apple and Amazon hit.
Rereading the memo, you feel a agony of accord for approachable Microsoft arch controlling administrator Steve Ballmer, who has been criticized for not overtaking Google, for not inventing the iPhone, not creating Facebook, and added transgressions. You additionally feel 10 bags of agitation for admission CEO Satya Nadella, who faces the aforementioned tech bazaar realities that blunted Ballmer. Myhrvold’s memo, anachronous Sept. 8, 1993, again warns that computer acceleration and computer accumulator were to abound exponentially for decades, authoritative the computers of the a approaching a actor times fast and again a abundance times faster.
Every tech brain was harping on the commotion Moore’s law would unleash, but Myhrvold’s article fabricated the advancing anarchy palpable. He wrote:
It is abnormally difficult for bodies to absolutely the ability of exponential growth. No acquaintance in our accustomed activity prepares us for it. The numbers become so astronomically ample so quickly…that it is accessible to either aish them outright, or mentally coat over and become aloof to their meaning. It is abundantly accessible to fool oneself into cerebration that you do accept it, but usually this aloof agency that you’ve mentally done a beeline extrapolation from the contempo past. This works for a little while, but again rapidly becomes out of date.
Exponential advance had accustomed minicomputers to bend by makers of mainframes who didn’t accomplish the “exponential extrapolation” and act on it fast enough. Exponential advance analogously accustomed microcomputers — claimed computers — to draft by minis, adorning Microsoft, which anon become the ascendant maker of PC software. “The advance ambit of Microsoft is unprecidented [sic] in the account of business, and seems absolutely amazing until you apprehend that what we accept done is ride the exponential advance ambit of computer price/performance,” Myhrvold wrote.
The Myhrvold announcement recites a Microsoft canon that the accouterments business charge be abhorred because its accumulation margins were too attenuate and the acceleration at which technology confused put accouterments makers at abiding accident of acceptable obsolete. Better to apply on software and its college margins, which Microsoft abundantly did until 18 months ago back the aggregation produced its Surface computers, and again aftermost abatement back it purchased the Nokia handset business.
But in his own way, Myhrvold, who larboard the aggregation in 1999 for added business and claimed enthusiasms, advancing the day that Microsoft ability accept to become Microhard, too. “The alone accouterments companies that accept anytime fabricated cogent money are those that managed to actualize an asset — the accouterments architectonics — which was aloft the affray of alone implementations and appropriately could adore a best activity span,” he wrote, apocalyptic the success of Apple’s iPod, iPhone, and iPad businesses.
“The aggregate of the worlds’ [sic] accretion cycles appear a the low end, aerial aggregate allotment of the market,” he continued, paving with words the alley Apple would after booty with its handheld computers. “Any software aggregation that wants to advance its about allotment of absolute CPU cycles charge accept articles that are accordant to the aerial aggregate articulation of the market. If you don’t, again you are accessible to a software aggregation that does establishes [sic] a position there and again rides the technology ambit up to the mainstream. This is what the PC industry did to mainframes and minicomputers, and if we in the PC industry are not accurate this fate will action us as well.”
If Myhrvold were autograph this announcement today, he’d accede that smartphones are aing to abduction the aggregate of the world’s accretion cycles, and the smartphone is accomplishing to the PC what it did to the mini and what the mini did to the mainframe. He’d add that Apple (and Google, with its Android operating system) and not Microsoft were benumbed the technology ambit in the smartphone mainstream.
It’s not that Microsoft never competed in the atom computer space. It obeyed Myhrvold’s dictim that “Anything which isn’t exponential in growth, or which is exponential but with a slower advance rate, will bound and atrociously be overwhelmed.” It congenital operating systems for PDAs and corpuscle phones, produced software for the SPOT smarch, bogus Zune music players, and went ample to aftermath the Xbox for gamers. (Anticipating the PDA, the smartphone, and an “always connected” device, Myhrvold pitched his aggregation a tiny “digital wallet” in 1991.) But Microsoft mostly absent the after-effects or fell off them, and those failures advice explain why Apple and Google accept college bazaar caps than Microsoft. Today, we’re apparently aloof a brace of artefact cycles abroad from your smartphone (connected to a full-sized keyboard and monitor) actuality a solid acting for your laptop and desktop computers. Unless Microsoft or its accouterments allies aftermath a commensurable product, the aggregation could lose its already bottomward primacy.
Although Myhrvold never mentions the Internet by name, he accurately predicted that an “information highway” affairs appurtenances and casework would bones the Blockbuster video alternation business as cine rentals go online, with agnate transitions in banking, bi-weekly classifieds (“Newspapers are in apparently the affliction bearings of any anatomy of book media”), retail shopping, Siri-like accent acceptance software, crime-fighting (he makes an aboriginal alarm for all-over video surveillance), media time-shifting, outsourcing, the retail banal market, and the acceleration of astute video amateur — “you won’t be able to acquaint the aberration amid the d and a movie.” Granted, he didn’t adumbrate billow accretion in his announcement (although you could say that he implies it), faculty the closing acceleration of amusing media, or ahead the “piracy” of music and movies. He additionally absent the accumulation clearing of announcement to Google, which commonly collects about 90 percent of its revenues from ads.
You could additionally beating Myhrvold for abominably admiration the collapse of accepted advertisement and cable TV, although accommodating readers will say his burying of the industry was aloof a tad premature. In one laugh-out-loud passage, he states with absolute aplomb that the Microsoft At Work attack would “unify PCs with the telephone, FAX and copier.” Yeah, right. My phone, fax and copier still don’t get along. Maybe the new Microsoft CEO will pay for accumulation counseling?
Still, Myhrvold’s hits dwarf his misses. Added Myhrvold memos, analyzed by Ken Auletta in a May 12, 1997, New Yorker profile, common the death-of-the-middleman capacity categorical in “Road Kill.” He accurately predicted the annihilation of Egghead Software and Tower Records in the face of online competition, but in an accidental miscue, he pooh-poohed the Internet “hype.”
Myhrvold affably conceded his blemish to Auletta: “When you adumbrate the abstruse future, as I do, you basically are like an allowance salesman, futures banker or gambler.”
As a celebrated document, “Road Kill on the Advice Highway” deserves your attention. But its basal bulletin about exponential furnishings of avant-garde technology charcoal so around-the-clock that new CEO Nadella should accumulate a archetype on his smartphone for inspiration, highlighting this keepsake mori codicil: “Our own industry is additionally doomed, and will be one of the added cogent carcasses by the ancillary of the advice highway.”
Disclosure: I formed for Microsoft as a staffer on its Slate acreage from 1996 until 2005. I still authority Microsoft banal in my retirement accounts. Accomplished after-effects do not agreement approaching results, but aloof anticipate of what a admirable apple it would be if they did! Send your announcement to [email protected] Now is the time to banknote out of my Twitter augment — it has accomplished its 66-month high. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and added casual announcements). Subscribe to this RSS augment for new Shafer columns.
PHOTOS: Professor Alec Broers, (L), Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, and Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s arch technology administrator antic during a columnist appointment in London June 17, 1997.
Chairman of Liberty Media Corp. John Malone (L) talks with Microsoft’s above arch technology administrator Nathan Myhrvold (C) and Liberty Media’s CEO Greg Maffei as they leave the additional affair of the Allen and Co. appointment at Sun Valley Resort in Idaho July 12, 2007.REUTERS/Rick Wilking
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