Skip to main content

Double down: a brief history of the most meaningless phrase in tech

Double down: a brief history of the most meaningless phrase in tech


A gambling term has become the go-to phrase for CEOs — frequently with disastrous results

Share this story

Double Down
Double Down

"Double down." An expression that has its roots in gambling has now become the go-to phrase for tech CEOs when they want to allay fears that their company is flagging. The only thing is, the huge failures that usually follow the phrase have given the expression a comical connotation. It’s almost as if, when a CEO says its time to "double down," it really means their grand plans are sure to fail.

We’ve been hearing executives use the phrase for a number of years now, but with each new mention of it, it seems to become more laughable than before. Let’s take a look at some other big flops and a few examples where we’re still awaiting the outcome of the double down promise.

HP: "We are doubling down on webOS"

Perhaps the most glaring example of double down failure was back in 2010, when HP senior vice president Brian Humphries said the company was "doubling down on webOS" shortly after its $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm. At the outset, it seemed that HP had grandiose plans for webOS — it even mentioned putting the mobile OS on printers — but a year after the purchase of Palm, the only things HP had to show were a couple of unimpressive smartphones and an equally disappointing tablet. In fact, the HP TouchPad was such a failure that it was only on shelves for six weeks in the summer of 2011 before HP pulled the plug on it and cleared out inventory through the now infamous fire sale. Shortly after discontinuing the TouchPad, HP disbanded its webOS hardware division and then said it would focus its efforts on software alone. Even that didn’t last very long — by the end of the year, new HP CEO Meg Whitman announced that webOS was being open-sourced. Though HP would continue to staff a small development team for it, the end of the platform’s commercial relevance became quite apparent to all.

Apple: Doubling down on secrecy, Siri

"Nearly every detail about the iPhone 5 was leaked to the media"

In May 2012, Apple CEO Tim Cook used the phrase not once, but twice during an interview at AllThingsD’s D10 conference. Cook initially claimed that Apple would be "doubling down on secrecy on products." That didn’t go so well for the iPhone 5. Months before it was officially announced, the size, shape, design, and nearly every other detail about the iPhone 5 was leaked to the media. It was leaked so extensively that Apple’s big launch event for the phone in September brought absolutely zero surprises — a rarity for Apple press events. Perhaps Apple is doing better with the alleged "iPad mini," since we haven’t seen nearly as many credible leaks for that.

Cook’s second utterance of double down came during a discussion of Siri, in which he said that the company had "a lot of people working on [it]," and that Apple had "some really cool ideas about what Siri can do." In June, Apple unveiled a suite of new features that would come to Siri as part of iOS 6, such as movie listings and trailers, sports scores and standings, and restaurant listings and reservations. Sure enough, all of these features arrived when iOS 6 became available to the public last week. Our tests indicated that Siri was also more responsive than before, and it had a bit more personality thrown in too. But even Apple admits that Siri is still in a beta stage, and it is far from being the complete virtual personal assistant that Apple’s ads make it out to be. In our book, a handful of predictable new features and some performance tweaks do not count as a "doubling down."

Google: Doubling down on tablets in 2012

Apple and HP aren’t the only double down offenders. In February 2012, Google’s Andy Rubin got caught using our favorite phrase. In response to the tepid performance of Android tablets since their debut in late 2010 / early 2011, Rubin said that "2012 is going to be the year that we double down and make sure we're winning in that space." Sure enough, a few months later Google introduced the Nexus 7, the first tablet in its Nexus line of "pure" Android devices. But it can easily be argued that tablets as a whole are still a struggling point for Android, as the Nexus 7 still relies on a number of phone-based apps instead of proper tablet versions. Given that it’s still a bit early to call the Nexus 7 a success or not, we can’t really say that Google has failed in its efforts to double down on tablets just yet. But Google’s own chairman Eric Schmidt stated just this month that there are 70,000 new tablets activated daily (which extrapolates to 25 million a year) and that the company was "late to tablets," indicating that Google still has a long way to go to make good on its promise.

Facebook: Company’s recent stock trouble make it a good time for employees to "stay and double down"

Finally, the most recent appearance of the double down phrase comes from Facebook’s own Mark Zuckerberg. Appearing at TechCrunch Disrupt just this month, Zuckerberg fielded questions about the poor performance of the company’s stock since it IPO’d earlier this year. Referring specifically to how the stock price would affect Facebook’s ability to hire new talent, Zuckerberg said that it’s "a good time for people to stay and double down." Of course, given the phrase’s spotty history, that could mean "stay and be fired in a few months."

Facebook has been quite aggressive with acquisitions and hiring in the past — the $1 billion purchase of Instagram being the most famous — but we will have to see if its poor stock performance changes that in the future. As with Google, it’s still too early to call a fail here, but Facebook will have to work hard to avoid the stigma that comes with the double down.

Where's the all-in move?

We don’t doubt that that "double down" will continue to be a favorite catch phrase for tech executives, and we also don’t doubt that there will be many failures to follow it in the future. However, doubling down at the wrong time, when you are behind in your hand, doesn’t get you anywhere. Instead, it leads to a bust, not a 21, revealing to the world that you never had that ace card to begin with. Blackjack is the wrong metaphor, but Poker is better. Rather than "doubling down," tech companies that are losing should go all in: the chip count is down, the stakes are high, and you take a risky bet to stay in the game.

One thing that has seemed to stand the test of time better than any tech CEO’s promise is the actual Double Down sandwich, which still clogs arteries at KFC locations across the great United States of America a full two years after its debut. Something tells us that’s not the image most of these executives are trying to conjure, however.