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Compile a Program, Plant a Tree

May 9, 2012

I was once at a very large software company discussing a hardware product roadmap.  I made an offhand comment that we had to refresh a specific part because we had decided to go lead-free in our product line.  The head of the software team commented back something to the effect of: “Well, we’ve been lead-free for years in our product.  Maybe we should put that in our literature.”

He was kidding, and we all got a good laugh out of it.  I wonder what he’s thinking now that his fellow software companies are buying the line

Microsoft’s efforts to improve its less than stellar environmental credentials have received a boost with the news that the entire firm will be going carbon neutral as of 1 July.

Announcing the decision, which kicks in at the start of Redmond’s new financial year, COO Kevin Turner said the commitment would cover all of the firm’s direct operations, including datacentres software development labs, air travel, and office buildings.

Um… okay.  Microsoft does have a couple fairly large datacenter properties that house Bing as well as other cloud-based services.  And they do have what seems like a couple thousand (really about 100) buildings in Redmond and Bellevue, as well as other sites.  But, um…

Okay, it’s not dumb.  Any company needs a good PR boost these days, and when you have Greenpeace crawling all over you, there’s some need to respond.  But I suppose the problem I have with this is the limitations of the thinking that Microsoft is doing.

A few years back, Intel (where I work) went through an exercise on driving more environmental responsibility.  We concluded that we could make some more improvements in our factory operations and such, but the guy leading the discussion (a friend and mentor of mine) correctly made the point that our responsibility went well beyond the office walls.  Given that we are a primary component of PCs, his point was that making a change in power consumed by the PC would greatly affect the environment in comparison to putting up a few solar panels (which we did).

Let’s get to one of my technology rules: The two most important computing standards in the word are, in some order, Intel Architecture and Microsoft Windows.  TCP/Ethernet is a distant but reasonable third.

If Microsoft was really serious about the environment, it could do something like focus on a concerted effort to drive low power states into a system when the system was not fully occupied (which in a PC is above 95% of the time).  The resulting reduction in PC power would outstrip the contributions Microsoft could make to planting trees and wetlands around its datacenter (which we do already around our factories) in less than a month.  But that would be hard, and going carbon neutral is easy if you’ve got enough money in the bank to pay for your modern indulgences to environmental religion.

I respect Microsoft as a company, and I work with them often on many initiatives, so I admit feeling a little uncomfortable in calling out my friends.  However, I think it’s worth pointing out a strategic intent to protect the environment in comparison to a PR announcement that is only there to make the company and the employees feel better.

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