His pioneering journalism held the industry to the same standards as other manufacturing sectors
Walt Mossberg has written his final column. Some people in the tech industry will probably have heaved a sigh of relief, because the one guy in mainstream journalism who never drank their Kool-Aid is going dark. But for those of us who value common sense and a cussedly independent temperament, his retirement is a moment for reflection.
Unlike most of the Stanford and Harvard alumni whose tech companies products he relentlessly scrutinised, Mossberg came from working-class origins. His grandfather was an upholsterer (and a union organiser) and his father was a door-to-door salesman who flogged dishes and blankets to millworkers. He went to Brandeis University and Columbia School of Journalism and then landed a job as a reporter (at $9,000 a year) on the Wall Street Journal, the house organ of American capitalism.
Early on, he got his first scoop: he discovered that a large automobile manufacturer was planning to announce a new type of industry-disrupting warranty. The company leant on the Journals editors to suppress the story until after it had made its big announcement; otherwise, the manufacturer would pull all its advertising.
The newspaper stood by its reporter and went to press with the scoop. The ads were duly pulled but Mossberg got a raise and, in the process, learned two things. The first is that when you come up with a story that powerful corporations dont want published, you need a publisher that is strong enough to stand up to bullying; the second is that corporations are always ruthless in the pursuit of their interests.
These lessons were to stand him in good stead when he became interested in the tech industry. He wrote his first column on the subject on 17 October 1991. Personal computers are just too hard to use, was his opening line, and it isnt your fault.
At this, one could almost hear the collective sigh of relief that went through the office workers of the world. They had been grappling with user interfaces that were often incomprehensible or non-intuitive. (In order to shut down a PC running Microsoft Windows, for example, you had to press Start.) If you updated your machines operating system, you might find that some of your applications no longer worked. If the networked printer suddenly stopped working, then you were faced with the kind of knowledge gap that existed between Leibniz and his horse. And so on.
One of the implications of this was that IT support became one of the most stressful occupations on Earth. Why? Because, in general, it involved dealing with people who had been goaded beyond endurance by the opacity of their desktop tools. When their PC worked, they felt empowered and augmented by the capabilities it offered. But when it went wrong, they felt humiliated by the technology and their own ignorance. Not surprisingly, they were as mad as hell and people in that state are not easy to deal with.
The significance of Mossbergs column was that readers felt that here, at last, was someone who was on their side. His general stance over the years was that tech companies should be held to the same standards as other manufacturers. Car owners, for example, are not expected to have an intimate knowledge of the principles of the internal combustion engine in order to drive a car.
And if it turned out that a particular model stalled regularly, then the responsibility to fix it lay with the manufacturer, not with the customer. Under the warped logic of the PC business, however, the unfortunate driver would be advised to remove the engine and install a new one.
Many tech companies feared Mossberg because he was immune to hype: he always tried stuff before he wrote about it and he could be unsparing in his criticism. On occasion, a critical review from him would cause the share price of a company to plunge. Accordingly, he was nervously courted by the royalty of Silicon Valley. In general, he wielded this power with discretion. He was sympathetic to entrepreneurs, even if he was sceptical about moguls. Even in his valedictory column, he said things that the industry probably doesnt want to hear.
If we are really going to turn over our homes, our cars, our health and more to private tech companies, on a scale never imagined, he wrote, we need much, much stronger standards for security and privacy than now exist. Especially in the US, its time to stop dancing around the privacy and security issues and pass real, binding laws.
And, if ambient technology is to become as integrated into our lives as previous technological revolutions like wood joists, steel beams and engine blocks, we need to subject it to the digital equivalent of enforceable building codes and auto safety standards. Nothing less will do. And health? The current medical device standards will have to be even tougher, while still allowing for innovation.
Its not often that we celebrate a journalist, but this is a time to make an exception. So let us wish Walt Mossberg a long and happy retirement.