A not-so-brief chat with Randall Stephenson of AT&T

hisviewSo we set up a call with Randall this morning to discuss some of the profoundly stupid things his guy Ralph de la Vega said recently about creating incentives that would encourage people to stop using AT&T’s data network so much. Point of the talk was, when you’re lucky enough to create a smash hit product — when the stars align, and the hardware is great and the ecosystem is great and the apps are great and the whole experience is great, and everything you do just makes everything else better, and you’re totally on a roll and can do no wrong — when that happens, you do not go out and try to fuck it all up by discouraging people who love your product. What you do, instead, is you fix your fucking shitty ass network you fucking shit-eating-grin-wearing hillbilly ass clown!

First off, before we even start the call, we’ve got problems, because shithead won’t get on the phone unless I’m on the line first. Like, Ja’Red comes in and says we’re ready to go, and I go, You mean Randall is on the line, and Ja’Red says, No, his assistant is on the line and once you get on then they’re going to get Randall — so I reach down, hit the button then hit it again so the call gets terminated. I tell Ja’Red to explain to these motherfuckers that Steve Jobs does not get on the line first, ever. Ja’Red does this, but Randall’s assistant insists Randall always gets on last, and especially so in this case since AT&T is about three times the size of Apple, so this time I pick up the phone and tell the assistant that he should inform Randall that when he’s ready to get his pointy head out of his ass and call me, I’ll be here waiting for his call.

So fine. We wait a bit, and he calls. He doesn’t say anything about the standoff, but I can tell he’s pissed, which is fine by me. He launches into a mumbling spiel about how Ralph de la Vega didn’t really say what all the papers are saying he said, and he was misquoted, and it was taken out of context, but I’m like, Bitch, please, guys at our level don’t get taken out of context, we write the shit out in advance and we know exactly what we’re saying when we say it and every goddamn word has been vetted and gone over by a team of flacks. So please don’t sit there like a zoo monkey throwing your own feces at me through the bars of your cage, bokay?

Then I go, Look, Randall, you’re how old — about 50? He says he’s 49. I go, Okay, so you were born in 1960, so maybe you don’t remember Meet the Beatles. Or do you? Do you remember that album? Did they have record players out there in Arkansas?

He goes, I’m from Oklahoma, and I’m like, Yeah, same thing, so anyway did you know that album? Were you aware of it? Came out in the beginning of 1964. The one with the four guys in black and white, half their faces white, half in shadow? Just four faces against a black backdrop? He says he’s familiar with the album but he thought we were getting on the phone to talk about incentivizing heavy users in order to optimize the network resources blah blah and I’m like, Dude, if you ever use the word incentivize around me again I swear I will get in my Gulfstream and fly to wherever you are and I will smash you in the face with a rock.

He sighs and says, Okay. I’m like, I’m sorry, what did you say? He says, Okay. I go, I’m sorry, but I can’t hear you. What did you say? He goes, YES! and I go, That’s better. But back to the Beatles. Now, the thing about that album was, on the day it hit the U.S. the whole world changed. Like, before that day, the world was one way, music was one way, culture was one way — and then after that day the world was never the same ever again, and as soon as you heard that album you knew that, and even if you were only nine years old, which I was, you just knew. You knew. Sales were crazy. I mean nuts. The thing was a huge smash hit. By April, twelve weeks after that album came out, the Beatles had the top five spots on the Billboard chart.

Now there was a lot of demand for that record — so much that the plant that printed the records could not keep up. Now here’s the lesson. Do you think the guys who were running Capitol Records said, Gee whiz, the kids are buying up this record at such a crazy pace that our printing plant can’t keep up — we’d better find a way to slow things down. Maybe we can create an incentive that would discourage people from buying the record. Do you think they said that? No, they did not. What they did was, they went out and found another printing plant. And another one and another one, until they could make as many records as people wanted.

Randall is like, Okay, I get your point. I’m like, You know what, I don’t think you do, because if you did, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation, would we? I mean if you did understand how to do things, your guys wouldn’t be standing up at Wall Street conferences and complaining about how much traffic you’re getting. Instead, you would be running around like a fucking maniac trying to build out your fucking network and make it the best network in the world — and the only reason you would ever need to talk to me would be to thank me for creating a phone that’s so amazing that it draws people to your shit network in the first place.

Randall, baby. we’ve got a hit on our hands. We’ve got the smartphone equivalent of Meet the Beatles. It’s not like that album was the first rock album ever. It’s not like nobody ever made a band with some guitars and drums before. But it was radical. It was new. They took old forms and made them new. Same with us. We didn’t invent the smartphone or the PDA or the music player or the Web browser. We just made them better. We made them new. We changed the fucking world, Randall.

And when I say that “we” have a hit on our hands, I’m really giving you way too much credit, because let’s be honest, the success of iPhone has nothing to do with you. In fact, iPhone is a smash hit in spite of your network, not because of it. That’s how good we are here at Apple — we’re so good that even you and your team of Bell System frigtards can’t stop us. You know what it’s like being your business partner? It’s like trying to swim the English Channel with a boat anchor tied to my legs. And yes, in case you’re not following me, in that analogy, you, my friend, are the fucking boat anchor.

So let’s talk traffic. We’ve got people who love this goddamn phone so much that they’re living on it. Yes, that’s crushing your network. Yes, 3% of your users are taking up 40% of your bandwidth. You see this as a bad thing. It’s not. It’s a good thing. It’s a blessing. It’s an indication that people love what we’re doing, which means you now have a reason to go out and double or triple or quadruple your damn network capacity. Jesus! I can’t believe I’m explaining this to you. You’re in the business of selling bandwidth. That pipe is what you sell. Right now what the market is telling you is that you can sell even more! Lots more! Good Lord. The world is changing, and you’re right in the sweet spot.

While I’m ranting, let me ask you something, Randall. At the risk of sounding like Glenn Beck Jr. — what the fuck has gone wrong with our country? Used to be, we were innovators. We were leaders. We were builders. We were engineers. We were the best and brightest. We were the kind of guys who, if they were running the biggest mobile network in the U.S., would say it’s not enough to be the biggest, we also want to be the best, and once they got to be the best, they’d say, How can we get even better? What can we do to be the best in the whole fucking world? What can we do that would blow people’s fucking minds? They wouldn’t have sat around wondering about ways to fuck over people who loved their product. But then something happened. Guys like you took over the phone company and all you cared about was milking profit and paying off assholes in Congress to fuck over anyone who came along with a better idea, because even though it might be great for consumers it would  mean you and your lazy pals would have to get off your asses and start working again in order to keep up.

And not just you. Look at Big Three automakers. Same deal. Lazy, fat, slow, stupid, from the top to the bottom — everyone focused on just getting what they can in the short run and who cares what kind of piece of shit product we’re putting out. Then somehow along the way the evil motherfuckers on Wall Street got involved and became everyone’s enabler, devoting all their energy and brainpower to breaking things up and parceling them out and selling them off in pieces and then putting them back together again, and it was all about taking all this great shit that our predecessors had built and “unlocking value” which really meant finding ways to leech out whatever bit of money they could get in the short run and let the future be damned. It was all just one big swindle, and the only kind of engineering that matters anymore is financial engineering.

And now here we are. Right here in your own backyard, an American company creates a brilliant phone, and that company hands it to you, and gives you an exclusive deal to carry it — and all you guys can do is complain about how much people want to use it. You, Randall Stephenson, and your lazy stupid company — you are the problem. You are what’s wrong with this country.

I stopped, then. There was nothing on the line. Silence. I said, Randall? He goes, Yeah, I’m here. I said, Does any of that make sense? He says, Yeah, but we’re still not going to do it. See, when you run the numbers what you find is that we’re actually better off running a shitty network than making the investment to build a good one. It’s just numbers, Steve. You can’t charge enough to get a return on the investment.

Now there was silence again. This time I was the one not talking. There was this weird lump in my throat, this tightness in my chest. I had this vision of the future — a ruined empire, run by number crunchers, squalid and stupid and puffed up with phony patriotism, settling for a long slow decline.

“Okay,” I said. “Nice talking to you.” Then I hung up.

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