Walt Mossberg, David Pogue & the State of Consumer Tech Reviews


Providing consumer technology reviews is a difficult job.

I say this not to suck up to consumer tech reviewers, but to acknowledge that they really do face significant challenges that include:

  • Conducting daily triage on products that are relevant to consumers. There’s a lot of new gadgets and technology, especially around Christmas and CES, and most of them may be worthy while still not worthy of reviewing.
  • They have to sort through claims that products are “revolutionary,” “paradigm-shifting,” etc. when perhaps they’re not all that.
  • If the technology is truly revolutionary, it may be of interest only to very early adopters, not mainstream consumers. (In 1975, the Altair 8800 was the first microcomputer — but the PC didn’t catch on until years later.)
  • They have to translate geeky features and terminology that only engineers care about into language that consumers can understand.
  • There are a lot of cross-over products that work for consumers and small businesses, but most consumer tech reviewers really only look at consumer technology — which doesn’t stop publicists handling SMB technology to call and complain to them.
  • There’s a lot of useful technology out there, like utility software. But reviews of utility software don’t sell papers like reviews of the latest mega-pixel camera, smartphone, etc. — which doesn’t stop publicists handling utility software to call and complain to them.
  • They get advanced look at buggy software, gadgets with glitches, etc. You know how frustrating it is when your own technology doesn’t work as advertised. These folks are on the front line for that, so think how frustrating their jobs can be — though, of course, when they have a problem, they get priority tech support from the company.

Point made? A difficult job.

Recently, there’s been talk about the New York Times’ David Pogue and potential conflicts of interest. As a long-time reader of Pogue’s column and email newsletter, I think he’s a pretty straight shooter. But I think he should do a better job of disclosing potential conflicts of interest. His credibility is important for the success of his column, which is important for all his side endeavors. There’s no reason he’d jeopardize the credibility of his Times column, but, again, better disclosure would help.

The latest contretemps involves Walt Mossberg and his review of Windows 7. The complaint: that Mossberg wrote a glowing review of the now-reviled Vista, and used almost verbatim copy to describe Window 7. (Check out the complaint here.)

Seems to me some of the problems Pogue had also entailed his reviews of Win 7 and also of Snow Leopard, Apple’s operating system. I know operating systems are important — it’s the reason I’ve waited to replace my aging computer until Win7 became available, and didn’t replace it earlier in the year when I should have but would have had to deal with Vista. So maybe that’s the problem: people take operating systems very seriously, and are therefore much more critical of reviewers who praise faulty OSes.

On the other hand, I say, give Mossberg and Pogue a break. There used to be lots of tech reviewers out there, every paper had at least one for a while. Now there are far fewer of them. So ask them to make more disclosures and to voluntarily follow the same rules the FTC will be applying Dec. 1 to bloggers in terms of receiving free products, and let’s move on.

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