Last week, two troubling trends were in evidence. The scarier one is that it appears the Obama administration is in the process of putting in place a secret antipiracy provision that has little to do with antipiracy and everything to do with killing properties like Google’s YouTube. It is truly frightening, and people are already planning civil unrest to stop it.
The other is the growing number of layoffs in the tech segment. I’m of the firm belief that layoffs are typically the last resort of incompetent management. The downturn did require some corrections, but with a recovery looming, those reasons should now be gone. Since I’m one of a small number who were trained formally in how to do this stuff, I’d like to spend a moment on why these things are typically done so poorly and how they should be avoided or done well.
Finally, I’ll end with my product of the week, the offering I’ve labeled as “the hottest Windows 7 product on the market” — the Dell Adamo 9.99 (and I have a loaner).
Every president has a group that’s way too close for comfort. With President Bush, it seemed to be the oil industry. With President Obama, it may be the entertainment industry, which was instrumental in getting him elected. This became crystal clear when the secret draft of the copyright treaty came to light and was picked up by John Murrell of the Mercury News. SlashDot also picked this up, and this is truly a frightening turn of events.
Why something like this is kept secret becomes clear when you read the details. It would do horrid things to our privacy, restrict our rights to use media we have purchased, and squelch our ability to be creative. It would turn a huge number of children overnight into criminals and open us to a level of government oversight that would make the Bush administration look liberal by comparison.
ISPs would have to police user content and cut off Internet access and remove content when accusations of infringement were made, eliminating presumption of innocence and making the ISP into a law enforcement body. It would apparently kill fair use; you couldn’t even copy protected work that you originated (your own work). It would potentially override local laws and eliminate civil liberties — and none of this has been publicly vetted.
It takes the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), one of the worst laws ever enacted when it comes to citizen rights, and effectively increases its authority both in depth and breadth, to cover more geographic areas and eliminate existing safe harbors.
Steven Mosher, who has been through the MP3 wars, is already suggesting a civil disobedience response that would consist of accusing the Web sites of the large media companies of infringement and forcing the constant take-downs of their own material, much of which is derivative work. Similar songs, similar movies, anything that remotely borrows from something else — file a complaint, and have it taken down.
In fairness to Obama, he clearly has a lot on his plate and may not have even known about this — and, as I said last week, has been doing nice work with the FCC. But folks aren’t measured on balance. Just because you do something nice in one place, you don’t get a pass in another. This secret treaty is bad — really bad.
Layoffs: Generally a Bad Idea, Especially During a Recovery
I’ve seen layoffs cripple companies, result in deadly workplace violence, destroy morale, launch unions and create competing companies. For instance, I think layoffs are largely the initial cause of Sun’s death spiral. The reason is that they are surgery by chain saw; there is nothing elegant about most of them, which seem to assume people are closer to machines than humans. They are vastly easier to do than force management to maintain high quality staff and balance costs with reasonable revenues.
Sometimes there is no choice — like when a market takes a dive, or an expected product fails to meet expectations. In those cases, it is cut or die — and much like it would be with a lifeboat that holds 20 people safely with 40 people in it, some are going to have to get out if some are to live.
Using that example, let’s say the lifeboat had 20 children and 20 marines. Layoffs are typically done by rule. In the case of lifeboats, it’s women and children first, which means the marines drown, which would likely leave the children to starve to death as they wouldn’t know how to survive. The right — but harder — choice would be the mix that assured the highest survival rate of the group. That’s the way layoffs should be done — but it’s really hard work to do them this way, and the financial community typically doesn’t have that kind of patience, nor executives that kind of training.
You also learn that things like this should be planned heavily and executed quickly. Leaving people with no future intermixed with people who will have jobs creates lots of workplace tension, and there is little reason for the folks who know they have no more future to perform. You also learn to announce a higher number than you execute so you can appear to save jobs — not execute a higher number than you announce, because that looks like you are putting your measurements ahead of your people. Beating expectations on layoff numbers destroys employee loyalty.
Consider two companies: HP and Microsoft. I have high-profile friends who work for each. Dan Rasmus (who almost got a tour of Bill Gates’ house) is a leading futurist and actually wrote the book Listening to the Future while working for Microsoft. Rich Fichera is one of the leading experts in the hardware side of the cloud — blade servers. He not only used to run his own research firm, but also was the senior research fellow at Giga/Forrester before I was.
Under Mark Hurd’s leadership, HP did do layoffs better than Fiorina did, and folks like Fichera were never at risk. That’s because under Hurd, HP typically kept track of its top assets, and it sure wouldn’t want him to end up at IBM or Dell. At Microsoft, even during a small layoff, Rasmus got hit and likely would make a nice asset for Google, given what he knows.
Employees are the lifeblood of a company. Layoffs should be the last resort, and if they have to be done, the emphasis should be on the quality of the effort, the security of the company and employees — and not just making the financial community happy.
One final thought: Layoffs make getting rid of employees easy, but it should never be “easy” to get rid of employees.
Product of the Week: The Adamo 9.99 Wonder Laptop
Laptops tend to be laptops; there have been a couple of relatively minor changes over the last two decades after we stopped strapping keyboards to desktops and calling them “portable.” We did see tablets, but they stuck with vertical markets and never really went mainstream.
The most exciting notebook of late is the MacBook Air, and it is just a better copy of the HP Sojourn, which showed up years earlier and was incredibly expensive and impractical. Apple makes nice copies.
The Adamo 9.99 is no copy. Dell has rethought the laptop computer to create an offering that is about half as thick as the MacBook Air is for about the same price as the high-end version.
It has some interesting new features — like a memory-wire-based catch that drops the full-sized metal keyboard out of the screen and the relocation of the components into the screen. It even reintroduces swappable batteries — made possible by having a small backup battery built into the laptop.
The 9.99 design allows for much more effective airflow, so neither you nor it get cooked.
Most thin laptops are lap irons, and the heat is not only not good for your, ah junk, it cooks the laptop. MacBook Airs, for instance, typically gate down substantially (read slow down) to keep from cooking their internal components.
Making better copies of things has certainly been successful for a lot of companies, including Dell, but taking the risk to build something amazing takes a lot of guts.
I wish more companies made amazing things. Because the 9.99 is one of the few, it is a natural for my product of the week.
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.