What are we to make of the latest executive email from Bill Gates? What is he saying (Interoperability by Design) and what is he really saying (Metacommunication)?
Press releases often emerge from a struggle between the "jeans" and the "suits". The jeans want massive press coverage; the suits want to conform with corporate norms. Many years ago, when I worked for a London-based software house called Data Logic (Altergo), I arranged a job for a friend in the marketing department, handling press relations and writing press releases. But I don't think Dave enjoyed the job; he found it deeply frustrating that the suits would always red-pencil any press release until it was so bland that no editor could be bothered to read it, let alone print it.
Bill Gates doesn't have to worry about whether people will read his emails, but Microsoft always needs to think about how people will read them. So when I read the Gates email, I wondered two things: What was its purpose, and what did the original draft look like?
Just compare with the email on Trustworthy Computing. This was an honest admission of past failures, together with a call to action. This email attracted a lot of attention, much of it sceptical ("is Microsoft now really going to sort this problem out"?) and even cynical ("just more marketing").
The present email is very different in style, and talks about many of the good things Microsoft has been doing in this area for many years. But what is the likely outcome of the latest email? Increased attention to the topic of interoperability, prompting discussion on Microsoft's strengths and weaknesses in this area. This discussion will involve independent and not-so-independent industry analysts, as well as interested parties in pro-Microsoft and anti-Microsoft circles. Perhaps most importantly, there will be intense discussions within Microsoft itself, with a particular focus on any perceived weaknesses in this area. In other words, a call to action is implicit within the email.
We can therefore imagine two things. Firstly, that this implicit call to action is the real purpose of the email. Secondly, that this was a lot more explicit in the original draft.