I’ve been watching with great interest this silly little debate about integrity and journalism between Marco Arment, John Gruber, and Joshua Topolsky, and I couldn’t resist the urge to comment.
First, a quick summary of the issue. A number of prominent tech sites, including The Verge and Engadget, wrote articles about the HP Spectre One all-in-one desktop computer, which looks suspiciously like an Apple product ripoff (think Thunderbolt Display bolted on top of a MacBook Air, with the same wireless keyboard and Magic Trackpad as an iMac). Each of these sites neglected to mention the similarities with said Apple products.
And so Marco noticed and alleged this was due to said tech sites being toothless and wanting to remain chummy with OEMs because their business model depends on it. Gruber chimed in and believes that this has more to do with these sites taking an editorial position that more closely aligns their views with those of certain readers who believe these manufacturers are not copying Apple, are entitled to do so, or one of many other similar positions. Topolsky responded with a pretty emotional and heated post. After that, a bunch of Internet ego dick wagging happened on Twitter.
Egos aside, I’m more interested in discussing what I believe to be the core issue with the business model of sites like The Verge that leave the door open for these types of omissions.
I haven’t worked as a journalist, but I have worked on the other side of the fence, in PR. Tech news sites, like any other news sites, are faced with a few fundamental problems: a high volume of news stories, too few resources to adequately cover them in depth, and fighting the clock to get “breaking” news out the door and on the site. These sites primarily make their money through advertising, which either directly or indirectly pays higher returns for greater pageviews. This means there is an incentive to be the first to break a story, to have an exclusive scoop, or take a controversial position on an issue. With so much competition, if you’re too slow in getting to a story, you’re losing out on potential “eyeballs” from referrals and other sources.
On the flip side, companies like HP and their PR agencies spend a lot of time and money trying to craft compelling pitches and use other tactics to get the interest of journalists. The gold standard for PR is that your press release gets published verbatim in whole or in part. Runner up would be that your messaging and spin is intact, even if the words aren’t. Providing the messaging isn’t totally over-the-top, journalists are happy to do this because they are working on deadline, and need to post a high volume of stories in a timely manner. This means there’s no time for editorializing straight news like a first-look piece. This is how the PR business stays alive and stays successful, and news sites keep costs down and revenue up.
What it comes down to, I think, is not a desire to suck up to OEMs, or to pander to Android and PC loving readers, or willful maliciousness by sites like The Verge, as Marco and Gruber seem to believe, but rather a sort of unintentional journalistic laziness that results from the pressures of the job and these publications’ business models.
Upon re-reading Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ blog post about splitting off their physical disc rental business into a separate company called Qwikster, I was struck by a sentence and how it applies to so many tech companies:
Most companies that are great at something –- like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores -– do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us) because they are afraid to hurt their initial business. Eventually these companies realize their error of not focusing enough on the new thing, and then the company fights desperately and hopelessly to recover. Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly.
Two companies came to mind when reading this: Microsoft and RIM. The former is ironic given that Reed Hastings is on the board. The latter is the one I’m really interested in talking about given the company’s growing list of disappointing news and announcements over the past year.
At the heart of RIM’s problem is what Hastings is referring to in his post. It’s the concept of disruptive innovation. The idea that markets aren’t won or lost over slow iterations of existing products with the same value proposition. Apple, for instance, never could and likely won’t ever be able to win the PC business as it stands. But they recognized this and understood they don’t have to. The PC industry has been in accelerating decline for the past decade,1 and Apple smartly chose to position itself for dominance in the post-PC era.
They did this through a series of disruptive innovations that nobody has been able to match: iPod, iPhone, iPad. And they are no doubt already thinking about the next one, because the iPhone decade will eventually come to an end. As Horace Dediu pointed out on a recent episode of his outstanding podcast, The Critical Path, each of these products flowed from a new input mechanism (scroll wheel, touch) which in turn required a new ecosystem and market strategy.
This brings us back to RIM, the once-darling of Canadian tech innovation that I’m still hoping can return to its glory days. Looking back at the Blackberrys that existed in 2005, and comparing them with the Blackberrys of today, I find few substantial differences. Sure, the screens are better, they’re faster, have nicer graphics, and have a few new bells and whistles. But, fundamentally, these are the same enterprise-focused devices that once attracted IT pros to the platform.
Since then, the iPhone emerged and dramatically disrupted the market, and the modern Android platform was born in response to it. The BlackBerry has continued to chart a conservative path with the same platform and same fundamental assumptions about market access, the required ecosystem, and its consumers. In the process, RIM’s leadership seems to have been surprised to wake up one day and discover their devices were no longer inspiring the hearts and minds of those who once carried a BlackBerry on their hip.
That’s not to mention the iPad, and RIM’s subsequent distraction and failed attempt at responding to it. The PlayBook was dead in the water on launch and likely can’t be saved with slow iteration. They only sold 200,000 devices this quarter, and are already trying to bolster demand by slashing prices. This is a race to the bottom that will do nothing but continue to hurt the company.
Shortly before the PlayBook was released, I speculated in conversations with friends that RIM needed to bank the company on this device. I think they did just that, but never realized they were doing it. Unfortunately, the device wasn’t the right one to make such a gamble on.
Now it seems like QNX-powered BlackBerries may be their last ditch attempt. And it sounds like there will continue to be a concurrent lineup of existing BlackBerry OS devices and newer QNX-powered devices — no doubt creating confusion in the marketplace.
Just like Henry Ford didn’t try to sell his customers a faster horse, Apple didn’t become the most valuable company in the world by building faster Macs. They made minor gambles and released three key products over a decade that disrupted existing markets and paved the way for new ones they could own. RIM should take a lesson from Apple’s playbook2 and focus on new product offerings, with entirely new value propositions that play to their strengths.
The path of playing catch-up with Apple’s four-year-old innovations can only lead to failure. Reed Hastings is right. RIM is only just realizing the errors of its strategy, and can’t move fast enough to save itself.
HP may have killed webOS, but at least the Palm Pre still cuts a mean slice of cheese.
There is no way that regulators can look at what Google makes from Android, the worldwide smartphone market and the juggernaut that Apple has become and say that Google’s acquisition of Motorola is in any way anti-competitive. It is a necessary move by Google to keep pace with its biggest competitor in the mobile realm.
I’m not totally sure I buy this, although I don’t think it will stop the deal from passing. Google has used its monopoly position in the search/advertising market to build an operating system at a huge expense and give it away for free, ostensibly in order to secure mobile search advertising revenue. This is the same kind of rationale that got Microsoft in trouble in the 90s when they bundled Internet Explorer with Windows.
No other company can afford to give away a mobile operating system for free. Apple, Microsoft, and HP all have to make money on the software itself (and hardware, in the case of Apple and HP). It will be interesting to see Google’s next moves in the space. Will they begin to lock down Android, making it less “open”? Will they try to become a successful hardware manufacturer, creating best-in-class Android devices?
It occurred to me last night that, with the 140 character constraint and ubiquity of the service in many of our lives, Twitter could potentially impact our writing dramatically.
A few years ago, I recall people voicing concerns about text messaging and how teens were learning bad grammatical habits as a result of its constraints.
With Twitter, however, I feel like many of us are rising to the challenge and learning to be more creative and concise as a result of the constraints. To be honest, I’m not sure if Twitter has had an impact on my writing style or quality, but I’m interested to hear what other think.
So, do you think Twitter has made you a better writer?
So Tom, what part of your Mac do you hate the most?
Hmm, I don't know. Maybe Office?