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A Conversation with The Wall Street Journal’s Walter Mossberg

Rolling Stone, May 19, 2000

walter mossberg portraitSINCE 1991, WALTER Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal’s personal-technology columnist, has dutifully chronicled what he saw at the computer revolution, and, in that period, he has become what Newsweek calls “the most powerful arbiter of consumer tastes in the computer world today.” The first sentence of Walter Mossberg’s inaugural column established its no-nonsense tone: “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it isn’t your fault.”

Mossberg’s judgments can be downright scathing. He has called Sony’s portable digital music player, the Music Clip, “insulting,” Real Networks’ icons “just plain obnoxious” and cell phones “basically stupid devices.” On the other hand, a kind word from Mossberg virtually guarantees a product’s success. When he said he liked the You Don’t Know Jack CD-ROM game, sales soared more than sixfold for that week. CNET’s stock rose forty percent after he mentioned that he liked its online news service.

A plain-spoken, Columboesque guy with a trim white beard and a comfortable belly, the fifty-three-year-old Mossberg is an incorruptible soldier in the struggle against the techno elite. “I’m not part of the computer industry,’ he says resolutely. “I’m part of the newspaper business.” Mossberg’s spacious office in the Journal’s Washington bureau is awash in technology: computers, flat screens, DVDs, PDAs, cell phones, keyboards and gadgets of every description. One entire wall is taken up by the “Mossberg Computer Museum,” an annotated graveyard exhibiting twenty years’ worth of digital roadkill: a Radio Shack Tardy TRS-80 (1983), a Mac SE/30 (1989), a creaky Commodore 64. Surveying these carcasses, Mossberg concedes that although progress has been woefully uneven, computers have improved a great deal over the past ten years. Still, he’s appalled by how far the industry has to go: “Unless you bought a really bad car, your computer is probably the least reliable thing you own.”

When I ask about a sleek new Compaq iPAQ-sitting on his desk, he shrugs. “Yeah, it looks great,” Mossberg says. “But remember one thing: All computers are crap.”

How well does the high-tech world serve consumers today?

Technology – the PC and the Internet – has made a lot of things possible: working at home, online trading, CD-ROMs, the ability to do all sorts of online research. These have been huge advantages for consumers. But for the most part, technology is designed with too little attention paid to the needs of “normal people.”

Why is that?

Because we are in the middle of a “class war” between the techno elite and the rest of us. And I have aligned myself firmly with the latter camp. The PC is twenty-three years old, and it still doesn’t have a working onoff switch! Take Microsoft Word, which is probably the most-used product in the world. Over the years, Word has done nothing but get more complicated and bloated. No normal person who isn’t willing to devote an inordinate amount of time and energy can figure out how to use the bulleting feature. And when you call technical support, they treat you like an idiot. The fact that the most popular books on the subject is the For Dummies series is a bad sign. People blame themselves rather than the real culprits: Dell, Microsoft, Intel, etc.

How well has the Internet met the needs of normal people?

A lot of it is really bad. When it comes to e-commerce, the vast majority of shopping carts are simply abandoned. People are sick of filling out yet another screen of information, and they go somewhere else. They also wonder what companies are doing with this information. And with good reason.

What are the best parts of the Internet?

Amazon is very reliable. They were smart to start selling all sorts of other products. They already have a lot of addresses and credit-card numbers, and as long as their prices are competitive, why do I want to run around the Web shopping at a million differ ent sites? Research has shown that people don’t want to comparison-shop. They shop where they feel it is safe and familiar.

The success of AOL has been the biggest lesson. Smart people stuck with AOL when the techno elite sneered and said it would fail. Why? Because when Steve Case gets up in the morning, he’s not under the illusion that he’s running a technology company. He knows he’s running a media/marketing-services company. His aim is to sell stuff and maintain customer loyalty, not to gum up products with unnecessary technology.

What is the future of Net music?

It’s huge! And the record companies – as well as the TV networks, and book and newspaper publishers in their businesses have a chance to survive, but only if they’re smart enough to fundamentally change the way they do business. First, record companies have to throw out the concept of the album. What is an album, anyway? Ninety percent of CDs now are just a bunch of unrelated songs. They cost too damned much, and you usually end up liking only five out of twelve tracks.

How will the Web change this?

Songs will be sold track by track, and for a lot less money. Record companies will experiment with different formats. One prototype I saw charges you a dollar to play a song twentytwo times. Another option is to pay five dollars for the right to play a song an unlimited number of times – but only on the device you downloaded it with.

How will that work?

When record companies begin selling name artists on the Web later this year – through your computer at first, but pretty soon you’ll see a line of portable digital jukeboxes the size of a portable CD player for about $500. I’ve seen one with a 6-gigabyte hard disk that could hold your whole music collection. It lists albums and songs on a screen. Eventually these devices will plug directly into the Internet.

How will artists and music companies get paid?

As an intellectual-property producer, I am a strong believer in copyright. I’m against bootlegging. But copyright holders have to strike a balance between the marginal danger that some pilfering will occur and the vast opportunity to sell legal copies to law-abiding people. This is the beginning of an experiment for the record companies, and they are simply going to have to relax and realize that the three and a half billion CDs already out there won’t destroy them.

How is the experiment going?

A very bad example is Sony’s digital Music Clip, which basically treats everybody like a criminal. It is very sleek and beautiful, but it takes all your music – including music you’ve already paid for on CD – and encrypts it, so you can’t play the MP3s you downloaded unless you convert them to Sony’s standard. Sony is the only technology company that also has a music company, and although they deny it, I believe that the music– division lawyers controlled the design of the product. I told people not to buy it.

What do you think of Napster?

It smells illegal to me. It clearly enables people to redistribute music – whether they’ve bought it or not. But why doesn’t the record industry stop suing everyone and set up its own massive Napster exchange?

Will people still have stereos?

Yes, about a year from now you’ll see long black boxes with a hard disk and Internet connections. They’ll enable you to download music off the Internet and to transfer your music collection onto a hard disk. It will be the biggest multiple-CD player you’ve ever seen.
Sounds like you can’t wait for this stuff to come out. You really hate the PC, don’t you?
The computer is the prison for the Internet – it is a clunky, horrible, low-quality, complicated device. The PC is a baby UNIVAC that was designed to crunch numbers and has been stretched to do all sorts of other things. But it’s the wrong device for the future.

What are the right ones?

In the post-PC age, we will use “appliances”: the digital jukebox, Internet radio, Web TV You will have Internet appliances for the
kitchen and the office. And a wireless one to walk around with. None of these will run Windows. The software– hardware-Internet services will all be combined in one package. You just hook it in and turn it on.

What about broadband?

The problem is that broadband is lagging behind these cool new inventions be
cause the cable and phone companies are the slowest, most monopolistic, least consumerfocused industries in the country. One of the great benefits of the AOL-Time Warner merger is that for the first time we will have broadband-transmission assets in the hands of an Internet company that really understands what to do with it.

Will I still have to buy a new computer every three years?

No, this is already slowing down. There isn’t much that you need really fast computers to do, except to play complicated video games. The slowest processor will surf the Web at the same speed as the fastest processor.

What are the biggest scams you’ve seen?

When they try to sell you a faster chip, ignore it. The Pentium III was one of the biggest scams ever. Intel said it would improve your Web browser. I tested their claims and found it wasn’t true. One of the great techie scams right now is bringing the Internet to your cell phone. Do you really want to read your e-mail on the phone? Give me a break! Techies love it, Wall Street loves it – it’s a circular loop. Remember, whenever techies say, “Here’s the next must-have thing,” keep your hand on your wallet.

What excites you now?

I’m excited about the iMac, the Palm Pilot and the Handspring Visor, the jukeboxes, AOL TV It does not excite me that there will be a new version of Microsoft Office. Most computers are boring at this point.

Is there anything you can’t believe someone hasn’t made?

I can’t believe they haven’t translated the Windows error messages into English. Right now they are insulting and incomprehensible. I can’t believe Microsoft and AT&T haven’t developed a truly simple online service like AOL. AT&T could bundle it with their phone service and make a fortune.

Is Bill Gates the devil?

No, but he and his company are arrogant and pushy. He’s a hard guy to deal with. He and I have had a lot of, let’s say, vigorous discussions. But he’s good at taking what others have done, stripping it down and mass– producing it. When he’s pressed by competitors, he has made good products. When he is not pressed, he goes to sleep, and his products deteriorate.

What did you think about the Microsoft trial?

I don’t know whether the judge is right, but I do think Microsoft has been a bully. And I believe that the judge and the Justice Department cracked the code and understood what was going on. Microsoft and the techno elite could learn a lesson from this. They believe they are doing the most important, most difficult work in the world. And they use this as an excuse that forgives their sins, like shipping products that have hundreds of bugs in them. They equate being smart with being technical. They believe that unless you understand programming, you aren’t really smart. They were shocked that the judge and the lawyers were able to penetrate all their bullshit.

Will Apple survive?

Apple in its best days was a minority player. But it was profitable and very influential. Then they went brain-dead for a while. Now they’re almost back to their original position. But that influence has been mostly in design. But this summer they are bringing out a new operating system that may change things.

What will the future look like?

The distinction between hardware and software is artificial. The post-PC appliance will combine them in a machine you can pull out of the box, plug in and use immediately. That said, now we need to become less obsessed with the machines and bring forward the journalism, the shopping, the music, the art, the e-mailing – whatever it is you’re doing – and let that be what occupies your world.

So you’re an anti-technology technology writer?

No, I’m an anti-techie technology writer.