When I first laid eyes on an iPhone, 10 years ago, it was in the hands of my longtime friend Walt Mossberg, then as now the dean of consumer-technology writers. “No, no, Steve, I’m sure it’s OK,” he was saying into the phone. “It’s not a problem.”
We were meeting up in Boston for a rare game between Walt’s beloved Red Sox and my beloved Giants, and I knew his son Steve was studying music there. When Walt hung up, I asked if we’d see him while we were in town.
“Oh, that wasn’t my son,” Walt said. “It was Steve Jobs. He keeps calling every couple hours to ask, ‘How do you like the phone, Walt?’”
For more than 25 years, tech companies and CEOs have cared, sometimes obsessively, about Walt’s opinions as expounded first in The Wall Street Journal and now at tech sites Recode (which he co-founded with Kara Swisher) and The Verge.
Hard as it is for me to believe, my old friend turns 70 this week. And while his supply of avuncular crustiness seems in no way diminished from the 29-year-old Journal reporter I first met back in 1976, this seems an appropriate moment to acknowledge his significant impact not only on the field of tech writing, but on the way consumer technology itself has evolved.
Back when Walt began his groundbreaking Journal column in 1991, “personal technology” mostly meant desktop computers, which, if they weren’t confined to the workplace, were largely the province of enthusiasts and hobbyists. Many of the journalists writing about technology in those days were enthusiasts themselves, often shading into cheerleaders.
Walt, though, was something different: part of a generation of journalists, including Steven Levy and John Markoff, who wrote for laymen rather than techies and who viewed technology as a major societal development that needed to be scrutinized, understood and, sometimes, criticized. “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault,” read the first sentence of his first column, and that has largely remained his mantra.
Long before he began the column, Walt was a Journal reporter, and a damn good one. In 1979, the Journal paired the two of us on its Washington energy beat, which was exploding with news: the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Iranian revolution and the subsequent U.S. oil shortage that led to gasoline lines and rationing.
At one point, beleaguered President Jimmy Carter fired his secretary of energy and appointed a Defense Department official to succeed him. The nominee granted us an interview, so on the appointed day, we turned up at the Pentagon, where he was awaiting confirmation. Before we met him, an Army colonel gave us a full briefing on his background, role and accomplishments at the DoD.
As we left the Pentagon, we agreed that the nominee was less than impressive. “But you know who was impressive?” Walt said. “That colonel who briefed us. He’s the guy to keep an eye on.” The colonel’s name was Colin Powell.
Walt brought to tech journalism the same level of fierce integrity that marked his news reporting—as the industry soon learned. An interesting new product would get a respectful review, no matter that it came from a tiny, underfunded startup. On the other hand, executives unhappy with something he’d written quickly discovered he could give as good as he got, and it didn’t matter if the complainer was Bill Gates. (I mean that literally, by the way.)
Once, it got back to him that a PR firm was boasting to potential clients that it had placed a favorable review in Walt’s column. Emphasizing that the favorable review was based on the merits of the product alone, he demanded the firm write a letter to everyone to whom it had made its claim to retract it.
The PR firm was apologetic but unwilling to embarrass itself by publicly admitting its puffery. So Walt contacted the company whose product he reviewed, told them what had happened and suggested that under the circumstances, he would be unable to review any of its future products. In short order, the PR guy called. “What do you want the letter to say?” he asked.
Walt’s opinions about products are far from infallible. (I began needling him about his inexplicably favorable review of the notorious Microsoft Bob the day it came out, and haven’t stopped for 20-plus years.) And as the number of tech sites has multiplied and the industry itself has matured, his judgments may not carry quite the make-or-break power of years past.
But the extent to which technology companies now obsess over interfaces and usability and consumer experience is at least partially a tribute to the attitude and values he’s been espousing for more than a quarter of a century.
So if you’ve ever enjoyed using technology—or, even more appropriately, complained about it—you might want to join me in wishing him happy birthday.