Q&A WITH WALT MOSSBERG
BRIAN LAMB, C-SPAN: Walt Mossberg, in your column, ”Personal Technology”, on Thursday of this week, the headline is, ”In Browser Wars, the New Firefox Loses Some Edge.” How is the average person supposed to understand what that column’s all about?
WALT MOSSBERG, COLUMNIST, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Well, hopefully, Brian, the average person will understand it cause I try and have tried since I started writing those columns a long time ago to write them in English and to write them conversationally. So compared to what you might read on a more techie-oriented Web site, for instance, I am I’m stopping to explain terms. I’m pretending I’m talking to a smart person, but somebody who’s not a techie and not interested in being a techie.
LAMB: What motivated you to write about Firefox and what is it?
MOSSBERG: Well Firefox is the second most popular Web browser in the world. And obviously, Web browsing is an enormously important activity engaged in by all layers of society and there needs to be a competition, just like there needs to be a competition in TV sets or any other gateway into a medium. A Web browser is a gateway into a medium and Firefox is the principal competitor to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which I’ve also gone into great detail in reviewing.
And there is actually a new browser war going on. About ten years ago there was a browser war Microsoft won decisively against a small outfit called Netscape and now there’s a new browser war and there are four principal combatants in that war, and Firefox is one of them. And so when any of them bring out a brand new Web browser, there’s a lot of interest among my readers, saying well what’s different about it? Should I switch to it? Is it slower; is it faster, has it got different features? So it’s a good topic for me to write about.
LAMB: What has been your reaction to the fact that you personally, after what is it 18 years of writing in all?
MOSSBERG: It’s about 17-1/2, yes.
LAMB: Have become a personality?
MOSSBERG: Well I’m a personality in a certain world. I can walk down the streets here in Washington and loads of people most people you know have no idea who I am, but it’s a little different if I’m at a computer tradeshow or something, where a lot more people do know who I am. So my reaction is it sort of comes with the territory and you certainly understand that as well
LAMB: Well you had a New Yorker profile and Wired Magazine stories and other magazine stories, and one of the things that, I think it was Ken Auletta in the New Yorker called you was a curmudgeon.
MOSSBERG: Yes. Well that’s commonly used to apply to me. I guess it’s because I don’t always give everything a good review. That review this morning; I mean Firefox is a cult-beloved product. I use it myself and I thought this particular new release wasn’t quite as good at advancing their position as some of their previous releases, so somewhere along the line I picked up that title of curmudgeon.
LAMB: How often do you write?
MOSSBERG: I write two columns a week and I also have working for me a terrific young woman named Katherine Boehret, who writes a third column that I edit, but don’t write and it’s really her work, so I write two and I edit one every week. And then I when the spirit moves me, I do a blog post on a Web site that I co-manage.
LAMB: Back in 1995, we did a little interview over at the Bureau and I want to show you what you sounded like, looked like, and also what we were talking about and talk about the change.
MOSSBERG: Sounds frightening.
LAMB: All right, let’s take somebody like me. I just happen to have bought my first ever computer not more than three months ago and it’s one of those little laptop jobs you can take around with you and plug in. And C-SPAN went on America Online on December the 1st and so I can go home and plug in or I can take it anywhere I want to and plug in
and find out the C-SPAN schedule. What about somebody like me? What’s the what would you tell me? If I had never touched a computer, how would I get started in figuring out why I should even have one?
MOSSBERG: Well the first thing I tell everybody; and I and I write this and I also say it personally to people, is figure out what you want to do with it. In other words, the idea that I just want to work a computer and I want to become, quote, computer literate is good for the hype of an ad campaign or the computer industry, but it’s not good for you, cause you’re busy, you’re smart about what you know, and you don’t necessarily want to take up a second career, unless it’s your hobby.
So the first question is what do I want to do with it? In your case, I think from what you said, you wanted to write some probably, and you wanted to be able to log onto America Online, which is an online service with lots of information, including now a section for C-SPAN. And you’re out probably traveling to some extent, so you wanted something portable. So once you get that figured out, then I think what you need to do is go for the best combination of not only price and power, but one factor that people tend not to consider a lot, which is ease of use.
Ease of use; how can quickly can you after you turn it on can you get into doing productive work without having to learn a lot of techno-babble?
MOSSBERG: Well I those glasses were pretty big. I guess that’s my reaction. You know I think both of us would have the same point of view today. You bought a computer at that time. I would point out, Brian, that the personal computer really went mass market in 1977 and that was what ’94, so it took you a while to buy your computer.
LAMB: I’m a little behind, yes.
MOSSBERG: But you bought a computer; then you’ve probably bought a number of them since then and you still want to do a lot of the same things.
For my part, I would say I still say the same things to people. I mean the most important thing is what do you whoever I’m talking to, including my readers, want to do with their computer? And there are different kinds of computers now, including things like this iPhone, which you know is actually a computer, not really a phone. It’s a computer that happens to make phone calls and it has more power, I’m sure, than that laptop you bought back in ’94 or ’95 when
LAMB: I find it interesting I was obsessed with the fact that we could get our schedule out. I mean that was the only thing that mattered at that time. But there’s another clip want to show you from that interview that uses language of products and you tell us what’s happened to these.
MOSSBERG: America Online I think is basically the most economical. For 9.95 a month you get five hours and those hours can be spent on any feature of the service.
LAMB: They can get our schedule on America Online.
MOSSBERG: They can get your schedule, but they can get a lot of other things. On Prodigy, you pay 14.95 a month, but once you use two hours, certain parts of the service, like the bulletin boards, start costing you extra and then there are other things that cost even above that. CompuServe is $8.95 and you get a bunch of basic services. After that, however, it may cost you $8 an hour, or if you have a high-speed modem, $16 an hour.
LAMB: What happened to AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe?
MOSSBERG: Well Prodigy died and that was a deserved death because they were more of a one-way broadcast service, not very attune to users wanting to contribute. CompuServe was acquired by AOL. AOL had been the upstart around that time. CompuServe and Prodigy were the leaders, but eventually AOL bought CompuServe and then you know AOL bought Time-Warner and the merger kind of fell apart and now Time-Warner is spinning it off again and it probably is going to be reborn in some other way. It certainly is has nowhere near the power it had in those days.
But I think one of the interesting things was you noticed I was explaining the pricing and the pricing was metered pricing. You got so many hours for so many dollars and then maybe so many features and then it went up. And of course, just a few years after that, the World Wide Web became open to people and came into existence and, except for the fee you have to pay every month for access, which can be $40, $50 a month it’s not cheap; the actual use of the content on there is not metered by time or by what you’re doing for the most part and this is right at the heart of a gigantic debate and gigantic business issue right now.
LAMB: Which is what?
MOSSBERG: Well the issue is if you’re producing a service or content, like The Wall Street Journal or C-SPAN or you know NBC or CBS or a very good blog or whatever, can you charge people for it? Can you sell enough advertising to make your profit cover your costs and make your profit and there’s a big debate. And we at The Wall Street Journal are almost alone. There are a couple of others, like Consumer Reports, but we’re almost alone in taking the point of view that we’re doing a mixed model. Some things we have are free and some things we have require a subscription, just like the printed newspaper does.
LAMB: What does it cost to subscribe online to The Wall Street Journal?
MOSSBERG: I honestly don’t know. I’m not in the sales side of it. My sense of it is it’s something on the order of $100 a year, but it can be a little less in combination you know they run offers and if you’re a print subscriber it’s less. So I don’t know, but I think it’s somewhere in the order of $100 a year.
LAMB: Last time I saw it was something like 800,000 subscribers or there’s
MOSSBERG: Oh, it’s a million.
LAMB: About a million?
MOSSBERG: It’s about a million, yes.
LAMB: What about Walt Mossberg’s life? Go back to 1995, where we were. What has changed in your life, besides the fact that Rupert Murdoch owns The Wall Street Journal?
MOSSBERG: I’ve been very lucky, both in my work and in my in my personal life. I mean my kids are grown up. One of them’s going to get married next year, so that’s a great thing.
LAMB: How old are they?
MOSSBERG: One is 30 and one is 27. The I’ve now, as we said a minute ago, I now write several columns. I think at the time we were talking I wrote one. I do have an excellent colleague, a young colleague that works for me who gives me a female and a younger perspective, which are really helpful. And you know I went through, like everyone else, various health things that I’ve thankfully come through and that’s been good, so.
But probably the most interesting thing I’ve done is about seven years ago, another Wall Street Journal columnist named Kara Swisher and I started a conference called the D Conference; All Things Digital. And that brings together sort of the leaders of the technology industry, and also the media industry to talk about these issues, like how do you make money, does everything have to be free, is there an advertising market online, and more to the point, what are the technologies of the future? And that conference has been very successful and it has spawned a Web site that I now co-produce with Kara, called AllThingsD.com.
So I still write my columns in the Journal. They still are my main job and I still enjoy doing them, but I’m also now a little bit of an entrepreneur in the sense that although the Journal owns the conference and the Web site, Kara and I run them kind of autonomously and that’s been a really interesting experience.
LAMB: All Things Digital, the conference; it was conducted when in June this year?
MOSSBERG: This year it was conducted it’s always conducted right after Memorial Day, so it was really at the very end of May, not it may have ended on June 1st.
LAMB: Here’s some video. I think it’s from this year. Tell me if it I think this is from the May 2009 conference and it’s Kara Swisher, but I want to show this cause it then also, in the New Yorker, he talks about a personal relationship you have in this situation. Let’s watch this.
KARA SWISHER, COLUMNIST, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: On my way down here, I drove down in my minivan type of car, with Ed, my assistant, and my mom, who comes to who’s come to every year to D and she hands out swag. I hope she was polite to you all. That’s a that’s a big hope.
So no kid she was great. Good, excellent, good service from the Swisher family. So she I interviewed her in a gas station about Twitter. I’ve been I was asking her if she is she tweeted. And here’s the movie I made. As you know, I always make these movies and assault people and I was assaulting my mom this time.
MOSSBERG: SO here’s Kara’s mom on Twitter.
SWISHER: Here we are in California rural California.
KARA’S MOM: Near Paso Robles.
SWISHER: Do you Twitter?
SWISHER: Why not?
MOM: Are you crazy?
SWISHER: Why not?
MOM: I don’t even use
SWISHER: What do you think of Twitter?
MOM: I don’t know. Why would I want people to know what I’m doing?
MOM: Well, I’m sorry. It’s nobody’s business.
tweet right now and people
140 characters, what would you tweet?
MOM: What are you talking about?
SWISHER: That’s all you have is a tweet. Oh, Mom.
MOM: Why would I want to do that?
SWISHER: Excellent, thanks Ma. Well it’s going to be sold for a zillion dollars.
MOM: Well, good. Lucky them.
SWISHER: You know we
MOSSBERG: You know some people think people like us in the media are elitists, but we’re not. We’re with the people. There’s the people voice of the people.
SWISHER: Yes. The apple doesn’t fall from the tree.
LAMB: So what did she use a Flip camera?
MOSSBERG: She used a Flip, yes.
LAMB: Now that didn’t exist
MOSSBERG: In fact, we gave away a Flip camera to everyone at our conference this year.
LAMB: So what’s the is did we get a good taste of what Kara Swisher’s mother’s like?
MOSSBERG: Yes, I think you did. She’s feisty. She’s smart. She’s not techie. She’s not into technical things. She never as far as I know, she doesn’t use a computer, anything like that.
LAMB: What did how much have you heard responses like her response to this thing called Twitter?
MOSSBERG: Well look, Brian, one of the great, fun things about writing about technology is there’s something new all the time. And some of these are just new gimmicks and some of them stick. And social networking is something that I think is going to stick, but it has different forms and different people try their hands at different ways of doing it and Twitter is the kind of flavor dejour.
It’s, for those watching this who don’t know, it’s a social networking service where you really are just sending out bursts of information; 140 characters is all you can type. In fact, in our program book for the conference, our little biographies of the two founders of Twitter, who were the guys we were interviewing there on stage, were limited to 140 characters.
So people talk about sometimes somebody says oh, I just had oatmeal for breakfast. Personally I don’t care about that. But other people have actually been the first to report news or make pithy and interesting comments about things going on in public events. Some of them may be your C-SPAN viewers who saw some interview on here and tweeted, as the term goes, a comment a quick comment about it.
LAMB: When did Twitter start? And I know in watching some of your conference, they’re not making any money.
MOSSBERG: Right. It started I don’t know the exact date; I think a couple of years ago, no probably no more than that. And it’s unlike some people have heard of MySpace or Facebook, some of these other social networks, or even going back to that really old tape we showed, AOL you know had chat rooms where back in those days where people got to meet each other.
Unlike those, on Twitter you don’t develop, quote, ”friends;” you develop followers. So people, if they think your tweets your messages are interesting enough can just click and follow you and then they see all your messages. And it’s tough for them to figure out a way to make money. They’ve been given a lot of money by investors by venture capitalists and they have plenty of it, to build it and to hire people. But they haven’t, so far as I know, started running ads or doing or charging anything for it.
And they we questioned them quite a bit at our conference, because our conference is a journalistic conference, where no one’s allowed to make a speech, no one’s allowed to show slides. We just interview them on stage. And we mentioned many times, how are you going to make money? What’s the you know. And they said well, we have a lot of data about our users. Maybe there’s some way, with the users’ permission, for us to you know find some way to make money using that, but they were kind of vague about it.
LAMB: And they didn’t I mean I know; I watched it. They didn’t say they knew how they were going to make money on it.
LAMB: Do you think they do?
MOSSBERG: No. I think they don’t know how they’re going to make money. I think they have more ideas of it than they were willing to say on stage at our conference.
LAMB: They said they only had 43 people working for them?
MOSSBERG: Yes, something like that.
LAMB: How do you do something this global with 43 people?
MOSSBERG: Well because the users do all the work and that’s it’s called a UCG, user UGC, user-generated content, same as YouTube. Think there are people sitting around Google producing all those videos of cats on skateboards? Those are done by average people. So they’re not producing any content for Twitter. It is expensive and it does take some work and it’s not simple to operate the servers and keep the system going. I don’t mean they do nothing. They certainly do a lot of you know under the hood stuff. But the actual creation of the content is done by users.
LAMB: I want to read this paragraph, and it’s very personal, in Ken Auletta’s piece on you, which what? It ran in 2007; 2007?
LAMB: ”Mossberg is not shy about expressing his opinions. He helped recruit Kara Swisher from the Washington Post in late 1996 and encouraged her to move to Silicon Valley.” By the way, where is Silicon Valley?
MOSSBERG: Just south of San Francisco, between San Francisco and San Jose.
LAMB: What’s there?
MOSSBERG: Most of the it’s probably the biggest concentration of the companies in the Internet and technology you know Intel is there, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Palm, Google, Twitter; all these companies are there.
LAMB: I know one of your bosses wanted you to move there and you said no way.
MOSSBERG: Yes, that’s a different story, but.
LAMB: You stay here because?
MOSSBERG: I stay here because I want the consumer focus always to be first in my mind. And I go to Silicon Valley quite often. I’m there six, seven times a year. I know how to drive through those streets almost as well as I know how to drive around here in Washington. But I was extremely concerned that if I lived among the industry I would become kind of infused with the industry mindset. And it’s not that there’s anything evil about that. It’s just that I wanted to stay infused with the consumer mindset, so I stayed here.
LAMB: This goes on to say ”When she met Megan Smith, a Google executive, decided to marry, Swisher told her mother was troubled by the idea of a gay wedding.” That’s in quotes. ”She and Smith had two children and she recalls that when she came home with their first baby, Mossberg was there and so was her mother, ’who really likes Walt a lot.’ Swisher went on; we were having dinner and she was being difficult. She was arguing with me. I was getting really uncomfortable.
Walt took her down, like I’ve never seen anybody take anybody down: ’How dare you talk to her like this? This is an important issue and you have to be supportive, no matter what, as a parent.’ My mother just was shocked and he was relentless in not letting her off the hook.” Explain that.
MOSSBERG: Well I wish Kara hadn’t told that to the New Yorker for that story. I like Kara’s mom. We’re on good terms today. We were on good terms before that and it was just one of those moments when I came to the defense of a friend; that’s all. I mean you know. These things happen in families when the new babies are involved. I mean she’s crazy about the kids, by the way. She takes care of them quite a lot; because both Kara and Megan work you know heavy hour jobs. And she’s a wonderful grandmother and I guess that’s all I want to say about it.
LAMB: Well actually, the main reason I ask is cause here again, here you are a you know your personal life is being written about and you’re just a technology writer, although, at just a technology writer, they say you make a lot of money.
MOSSBERG: I’m just a technology writer and you are just a television guy. And yet, everyone knows you and who and particularly people who are interested in the things C-SPAN covers and lots of people know who I am, or think they know more about me than they do, because they’re interested in what I write about.
LAMB: Give us an example of where it can be more than one; companies have really come at you, desperately wanting your endorsement and what do you do personally? How do is that where the curmudgeon thing comes in? You just push back.
MOSSBERG: Well, first of all, I don’t endorse, in the sense of you know putting a blurb on a box of something. People can run quotes from my reviews, cause that’s fair use under the copyright laws and the First Amendment, but I don’t ever agree to endorse you know this product is endorsed by Walt Mossberg. I don’t do that. That’s a that would be unethical journalistically and it would be unethical under the rules of The Wall Street Journal and my own personal ethics.
But it’s just like being a movie reviewer. I mean I’m an opinion columnist, Brian. I’m not a reporter. I used to be a reporter at one time, but I am a columnist who is paid to write opinions, who is paid to be subjective. I test these products and then I tell people what I think about them. Which should you buy; which one should you not buy? What are the strengths of this; what are the weaknesses of it?
So but I have a big audience, so people want to have put their product in front of me. And I do. I spend I will spend the rest of this day, once we’re done here, meeting with companies looking at their products. And some of them I’ll write about; some of them I won’t. Some of them I will give a good review to and some of them I will give a kind of middle of the road review to and once in a while I’ll give a really bad review to something.
So companies pitch me. There’s nothing it’s there’s nothing sort of nefarious. Nobody tries to muscle me; they just pitch me. They’ll come, they’ll say here’s this new gadget or this new Web site or this new computer, whatever it is, a digital camera and I’ll take a look at it.
LAMB: Well they do say you make and break products. Do you feel that way?
MOSSBERG: I’ve never said that.
LAMB: No, I didn’t say you did, but they you know people are writing all the time that
MOSSBERG: Yes. I don’t believe that. I’ll be look, its’ perfectly obvious that if you are someone whose name is well known; let’s say a mover movie reviewer and your movie reviews appear in a trusted and well known and widely read publication that if you like a movie, that will help ticket sales to the movie and if you don’t like a movie it will probably hurt them. And that’s sort of the analogy here.
Obviously if I say Firefox is the best browser and I recommend you use it and not use this other one, which I is the kind of thing I sometimes say, some percentage of people who wouldn’t otherwise have done so will go get it. And if I say this thing is the worst Web browser, some percentage of people who might have used it won’t use it, but that’s not quite the same as saying make and break. I don’t believe that.
LAMB: If you go back to what we were talking about earlier; the Prodigy, the CompuServe, they’re gone. AOL has not succeeded the way I think they intended to. Looking at what you see in front of you today, things that we all know about, what do you think’s going to not make it? And if it what indication do you have that some of these companies will not make it financially?
MOSSBERG: Well I don’t cover the finances of these companies and I think it’s really important for people to understand, particularly technology fans to understand, when they are thinking about investments that just because you love the product or just because it looks like a cool product or all your friends are using it doesn’t mean that the company is managing the money correctly or is planning the next product correctly or is doing all of the boring non-techie financial and management things.
You know maybe they made a bad deal for memory chips and their competitor is paying less and can under-price them, even though the product isn’t quite as good. There are millions of these factors, which is why I have never; in the 17 years I have written this column, ever given any investment advice and why I’m not going to start here today.
But I would say that most of the tech products that are out there today will fail, in the sense that they won’t become mega hits and they will be replaced by something else. And a few of them are landmark products that are kind of game-changers and change the industry and you know like the original IBM and Apple computers were big deals; they were game changers, the original Web browser, things like that. But those don’t come along all the time.
LAMB: I want to show you a clip from our ’95 interview, where there were a couple computers in the office there and you’ll see what they looked like.
MOSSBERG: All right.
MOSSBERG: Well right here, in order to do the do the column, I have the two most common kinds of computers. This happens to be a Compaq, but it might be any other brand, and it’s running Microsoft Windows, which is a system that makes IBM-compatibles easier to use. And then this is an Apple Macintosh, which is running the Macintosh software. And I use both of them. I write the column alternating in on one platform or the other and I try out software for both kinds of computers.
LAMB: Now these computers operate differently; these two?
LAMB: I mean for somebody that’s never had a Compaq or an Apple?
MOSSBERG: Right. They these computers have different operating systems. A program that is a Macintosh program won’t run on an IBM-compatible and vice versa. However, what’s been happening in the last few years is that Apple’s approach, which was to use the mouse and icons, which are little pictures on the screen that you click to get things done and they use a lot of plain English lists of commands; that approach has been adopted widely on the IBM PC through this system called Microsoft Windows.
And what you wind up with is very similar looking computers now, and even though a program that’s made for one won’t run on the other, many companies make two almost identical versions of the same program, so that if I were running, say the Microsoft Word word processor in Windows and the Microsoft Word word processor on Macintosh, on the screens they look almost identical.
LAMB: So what’s happened to the Compaq, the Apple, the Windows; all the different language you used?
MOSSBERG: Well one thing that I was saying there is still absolutely true today. The two most prominent computer operating systems and the two sort of almost religious rivals here are Apple and Microsoft, in terms of their operating systems. And there are Apple is vertically integrated company that makes its own makes the Mac; their computer and all their other products, and they make the software, the operating system and all that. Third party companies can produce programs that run on them that Apple doesn’t own or make any money from, but they make both the hardware and the software.
Microsoft, which is a much bigger company, makes no hardware or no computers. I should say they make a small amount of hardware. And they principally make Microsoft Windows still, which is still the dominant operating system. And they make Microsoft Office, which I mentioned there, which includes Word and Excel and, you know, all of your viewers know that.
So those things are similar. Compaq the particular maker of that computer. You can still buy Compaq computers but now Compaq is owned by Hewlett Packard and it is merely a brand of Hewlett Packard’s rather than an independent computer company.
Apple, in the time between that tape and today suffered a near death experience. Some people say they were within 90 days of Chapter 11 in around ’97 or so. And Steve Jobs who had been one of their founders and who had been thrown out by the guy he brought in to help run the company was brought back and he has revived that company pretty spectacularly if you were an investor in it at least. And have produced a series of landmark products in the, whatever it is, 12 years or so since he’s been back.
LAMB: Your paper has covered a lot of Steve Jobs and his illness. If Steve Jobs wasn’t there, what impact do you think it would have on the company?
MOSSBERG: Well, it’s very hard to say. He’s one of these unusual chief executive officers, Brian, who tends to be very detail oriented and he’s a product guy. He has his hands in a lot of things.
So obviously it wouldn’t be a simple matter of replacing a sort of non-assertive CEO. On the other hand, he’s not personally sitting there designing the next iPhone or the next MacIntosh.
They happen to have a brilliant designer and a design team. They have a COO who has run the company during his medical leave of absence who seems by all outside accounts to have done very well.
I imagine over time the company would change because he is such a strong personality and a strong presence but I don’t know that you could say the company would fail. It just might be a little different. I don’t know.
LAMB: If you had to live with just what you wanted to use and you weren’t in this business any longer, what would you have right now in your possession, meaning everything from your laptop to
MOSSBERG: Yes, I’m not going to get I’m not going to I’m not going to sit here and endorse a bunch of products. I’m just not going to do that. I use every day a Windows computer and a Mac. And I use different ones.
I personally own between what I own personally and what The Journal owns on my behalf, probably eight or nine computers, roughly split between Windows and Mac and some are laptops and a diminishing number are desktops because desktops are kind of going away but I use all of them.
And in terms of the device that my phone, it has changed over the years. I do carry an iPhone right now. I have carried other brands in the past and I may carry other brands in the future.
LAMB: What about a netbook and tell us what that is?
MOSSBERG: A netbook is a marketing term at the moment. It may someday be a real different kind of animal but right now it’s a marketing term for an especially small and inexpensive laptop. That’s really all it is.
If you go to, you know, to Best Buy and you say I want to buy a netbook, they will sell a small laptop for somewhere between $300 and $500 usually running Windows XP, which essentially is like any other laptop except it’s very small and light and didn’t cost you very much money.
LAMB: And you
MOSSBERG: And we’re in a terrible economy and people do genuinely want something smaller and lighter, people who travel particularly. So, the appeal of something that is only a few hundred dollars and is about half the weight of what you might have had before is strong. So, they’re doing very well.
LAMB: On your Web site, here’s a you giving some advice, recommendations and all and I want to run this and you can tell us what you do and when you do this.
MOSSBERG: This week I thought I would talk about just a handful of the ones that I find myself using most often on my iPhone and recommend them to you. And let me just quickly tic off some of them here in this video.
The first one I’d like to mention is called Tweetie. If you use Twitter like I do and like millions and millions of people do, its good to be able to use it on the go and there are a bunch of Twitter apps for the iPhone but Tweetie is the one that I like the best. I think it does a great job of letting you make your own post, read other people’s posts, and do searches and do other functions within Twitter.
Another closely related app, another social networking app is Facebook. This is officially produced by Facebook itself. It has, it covers all of the core functions of the Web based Facebook service. You know updating your status messages and your photos, viewing other people’s news and viewing their photos, dealing with internal Facebook e-mail and internal Facebook chat.
Another app I find myself using a lot of is Amazon’s Kindle app for the iPhone. This is a free app that performs the basic functions, not all of them, but the basic functions of the Kindle e-Book reader hardware that Amazon sells for $360. It can allow you to read on your iPhone the same Kindle books you can read on your Kindle device and it will even synchronize between a Kindle device and an iPhone if you happen to own both.
LAMB: First where can people see those kind of recommendations?
MOSSBERG: Well, what that was was me that was a week where I choose to write a column recommending some iPhone apps. Do you want me to explain what that is?
LAMB: I do.
MOSSBERG: OK. So the most, I think the most important hardware technology and in a way also software technology going on right now is the rise of the hand held computer, the super smart phone.
Unlike the netbook that we just talked about which is more of a price play and a size play, this is really a new kind of computer. And I have a few of them here but, you know, the most famous one is the Apple iPhone, which I do carry, which by the way any of these have more power than those computers in my office in 1995.
But one of the cool things about these, all of these, this is the Palm Pre, which is a competitor to the iPhone that came out recently. This is another relatively new competitor called the Nokia N97. This one has a kind of flip up screen. And just for historical interest, here’s really, I think the first really good smart phone, the Palm Treo from I don’t know 10 years or so ago.
But this iPhone class let me call it that, iPhone class smart phones, and they are others that I don’t have on this table with me, are essentially hand held computers that happen to make phone calls.
And one of the cool things about them is they are also like the Windows computer, like the Mac computer, they are platforms for people to write software for. Useful software that can get things done, that can entertain you whether it’s a spreadsheet or a game or, you know, the C-Span schedule I’m pretty sure is somewhere on this iPhone.
There are Apple recently announced that after one year of allowing people to write and sell programs for the phone which are called apps. The word is short for application. An application is the techies’ term for a computer programs. So apps.
After one year of allowing apps on its iPhone product, they now have 65,000 apps available, which is an astounding thing. And they have been downloaded by people, according to Apple, a billion and half times in that year.
Now many of these are free. A lot of others cost a buck. Some cost as much as 40 bucks but it’s quite astonishing. So what you saw me doing in that video was talking about some of the apps that I use on my iPhone that I find most useful.
LAMB: Where do you find out where those 65,000 apps what they do? And why you
MOSSBERG: Oh, Apple has an apps store. And the apps store can be reached either right on the phone by touching an icon which brings up essentially a catalogue of these apps and describes them.
In that video you saw screen shots of like that Kindle app and so forth. Those are in the catalogue and you get a chance to read about it, what can it do. Look at what it would like on your phone and then you can click and buy it or not buy it.
LAMB: How did
MOSSBERG: By the way, you do the same thing on either your Windows or your Mac computer with the iTunes program, which is pretty widespread. There’s a section in that program which you can click on it, is a catalogue of apps for your iPhone.
LAMB: How did you do that video in itself? Did you do that on your own?
MOSSBERG: Yes. Yes. Did you think the production values were fabulous?
LAMB: Well, I’m not sure that Yes, but I’m not sure the production values matter when you’re looking for information.
MOSSBERG: What I did on that video and what I do every week, I write my column. And this is another change I guess from 1995. I write my column and when I have finished writing my column and filing it to New York to the editors, I then go and sit down in front of one of the computers in my house which has a built-in camera.
Most computers sold today have a built-in camera. Fire up a program that records video and I talk into that little camera, as you saw me do there. Then I send the raw video to New York.
At The Wall Street Journal in New York, and this would have been astounding in 1995, completely unheard of, there is a video production unit that takes that video and puts in B roll, which as you know
LAMB: Showing the Kindle and things like that.
MOSSBERG: Showing the things that I’m talking about, putting my name, you know, across to identify me as I’m sure will happen on this program. I could do that on the computer myself. The software I have has the capability for that but in my case I send it to them in New York.
They do all those things. They then send it back to me. I look at it to make sure it all seems right. Then we publish it on the Web.
LAMB: So, let’s go over where all things Walt Mossberg, where can what days of the week can they read your column?
MOSSBERG: If they’re a print reader, my two columns, which are called ”Personal Technology” and ”Mossberg’s Mailbox,” appear on Thursdays. They appear on the Web starting the night before so Wednesday night at usually around 9 o’clock Eastern they appear on either The Wall Street Journal Web site, wsj.com, or the Web site that The Wall Street Journal owns but which I run with Kara Swisher, which is called AllThingsD.com.
They can also read on Wednesdays in print a column called the ”Mossberg Solution,” which despite the name, I do not write and it’s written by Katherine Boehret. And her column is on the Web. And she does a video also every week. Her column is on the Web Tuesday night on those same two Web sites.
LAMB: We have some video of her so let’s see what, is it Katie or Katherine?
MOSSBERG: Katherine is the byline but she goes by Katie.
LAMB: Let’s watch this.
KATHERINE BOEHRET: Hi, this is Katie Boehret with The Wall Street Journal. It can be really frustrating to type in a search online only to receive hundreds of results that you have to comb through to find exactly what you want.
This week I tried two free tools that you can use to improve your searches online. One is from the search giant Google and it is called SearchWiki. It is available for anybody with a Google account and it only works when you’re signed into your Google account.
SearchWiki is something that appears on screen when you conduct a regular Google search. It includes arrows beside each search results. An up arrow, a down arrow, and a little tiny icon that represents notes or comments that you can add to a search result.
So what’s the point of all these SearchWiki icons? Well, arrows can be clicked and then a search results shoots to the top of the screen. That means that you value that result. You think it’s important for you.
LAMB: Where did you find Katie?
MOSSBERG: Katie came to me from the University of Delaware as a young woman and she’s still a young woman. She started as my what we call reporting assistant, which is just a job title with The Journal, which means you do some reporting and you do some clerical things.
She’s turned out to be terrific and she’s now a full fledged reporter at The Wall Street Journal and an employee of mine. And she’s great.
LAMB: Go back to the All Things Digital Conference. Where was that held?
MOSSBERG: That conference is held in Carlsbad, California, just outside San Diego at a hotel there. You know there’s no law that it will always be held there but it has been held there for the first seven years.
LAMB: Who can come and what does it cost them?
MOSSBERG: Anyone can come actually. People think its invitation only. It’s not. It’s not cheap. It’s a $5,000 ticket to attend the conference. We tend to have a lot of repeat attendees who enjoy it because like any good conference, it’s a combination of what’s on stage, what am I learning, if anything, from the speakers, but also a lot of networking.
Brian, there’s been a lot of business deals done in the hallways of that conference. Sometimes Kara and I don’t find about it until years later and somebody will say ”you know, we negotiated this big billion merger, you know, starting at D three years ago” or something. We’re like well, gees, we’d be rich if we could get a cut of that but of course, we don’t, and we can’t.
LAMB: How many days is it?
MOSSBERG: It’s about it stretches over three days but its not three full days. It starts in the evening of the first day with a dinner and a single interview. Then an entire, very long day the next day and then about half or two thirds of a day that last day.
LAMB: Does anybody dare say no to you?
MOSSBERG: Sure. People say no to me all the time.
LAMB: On the conference, I mean and you call up and ask them and they just don’t show up and wouldn’t that impact you or Kara in your writing and coverage?
MOSSBERG: Well, nobody doesn’t we haven’t had a case where somebody has agreed to come and then bailed on us, if that’s what you mean. We certainly have had cases where people have said no, thanks, I’d rather not be a speaker. But we’re persistent, we go back to them.
This year we had the CEO of Nokia which is in some ways the most important tech company in Europe. That was about a four-year effort to get the CEO of Nokia to come. Rupert Murdoch, my boss, my ultimate boss now, when before he bought The Wall Street Journal declined to be a speaker a couple of times. And even after he bought The Wall Street Journal, I think it took me three months to convince him come and be a speaker. And he was a terrific speaker actually.
LAMB: Why do you think you’ve become so valuable to the newspaper?
MOSSBERG: You know you’d have to ask the people that run the newspaper. I try to do a good job. I have a following. I think most of the readers find what I write to be useful. And beyond that it’s really really you’re asking the wrong guy. Really ask them.
LAMB: Well take yourself, the name out of it, but put the column in there and in the last, you know, 17 and a half years why has this become such an important subject?
MOSSBERG: Oh, well, the subject is I mean we are living through one of the periods, one of the greatest periods of technological change in modern history and maybe in all history.
And it’s confusing to people. Lots of aspects of their lives whether its getting their news, getting their entertainment, television, making phone calls, you know, taking pictures. All these things are changing rapidly and dramatically, and it is useful to people I think to have some of this explained to them. I think of myself in some ways as a subcontractor. People have subcontracted to me the task of testing a bunch of this stuff and from a normal person’s perspective trying to give them a sense of what it’s like to use it, does it work as promised, and that sort of thing.
But actually this kind of journalism is very popular across many publications and not only in technology but in other fields, we’ve been very successful at The Journal with columns on health, with columns on investment and other topics. So people are looking for advice.
LAMB: So from your own experience, is there a printed newspaper in ten years?
MOSSBERG: You know I don’t think the answer to that. It certainly is changing faster than I would have said three years ago. Part of that is hastened by the overall economic climate but the point isn’t to save newspapers or to save television stations.
The point is that we need to have journalism and journalists and it doesn’t matter to me if people are reading me on a screen or on a dead tree. It just doesn’t matter.
LAMB: What’s the difference in the number of visitors you get in the newspaper and on a Web site?
MOSSBERG: Well, I don’t know the answer on a newspaper because it’s very difficult to I mean I know the circulation of the paper.
LAMB: Two million.
MOSSBERG: It’s about two million, yes. I can’t tell you how many of those two million people read my column. The traffic is quite respectful on the Web and it’s much more easily measurable as well.
I would guess that partly because I am writing about technology, I probably get a higher percentage of people than some other journalist might reading me on the Web as opposed to reading me in print.
LAMB: What kind of a column gets the most response?
MOSSBERG: Columns that touch on brand new, much anticipated products and I would have to say especially brands that have tremendous loyalty among people. So a new Blackberry, anything new from Apple, they tend to have tremendous interest because they have very passionate customers. And there are I’m sure I’m leaving out several companies like that but
LAMB: Well, I from reading I can remember a column I read some time ago in snagfilms.com, All Documentaries All the Time and Free. Do you have any idea? I know you wrote about it before it was even rolled out. Do you have any idea how they’ve done?
MOSSBERG: Actually, I literally got an e-mail today from them. It’s their first anniversary tomorrow or today or something. And I think they feel like they’re doing pretty well. I mean I have no idea if they’re making money or what their, you know, financials are but I think they have managed to distribute hundreds of films in the last year.
LAMB: I noticed they have advertising on there now. That’s Steve Case is involved in that and
MOSSBERG: It’s Ted Leonsis’.
LAMB: Yes. Who were all involved years ago and
MOSSBERG: At AOL, yes. Yes.
LAMB: What about I can feel your excitement when you do something like the iPhone 3GS. I mean you can get a sense that you’re really are you as excited about it as you write. And what
MOSSBERG: Yes. I’m very excited about I’m very excited when technology produces something new and useful for average people. And that’s beautifully designed. And I think the iPhone falls into that category but not only the iPhone.
I’m excited about was excited about the Palm Pre and the Android phones from Google. This is a new class of device that I think changes the way we live and work without requiring them to learn a lot of techie stuff. And that always gets me excited.
So I think that’s a really important category right now and I thoroughly enjoy writing about it.
LAMB: If you could have your way in technology and science and all that, where do you want all this to go?
MOSSBERG: I want it to remain human focused. I want it just like I said to you a long time ago in that tape when I was wearing the bigger glasses, I still think ease of use is the most important thing. And I think it has to be human centered. And I think having people’s opinions whose opinions we might not have been able to read in the old days or watch in the old days is really a treat. It’s really a privilege.
There are loads of smart people out there who don’t happen to have a job at The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or on C-Span and those people have a lot to contribute. It’s great. One of the reasons I do use Twitter is I’m interested in hearing what they have to say.
LAMB: Here’s a brief 24-second clip showing a little bit of the Walt Mossberg personality.
MOSSBERG: This story is really interesting because then of course, it began. It’s grown.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPATE: Yes.
MOSSBERG: I mean we were showing you some sort of negative numbers at first but the truth is what are you 32 million now or
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPATE: We don’t release those numbers but
MOSSBERG: But it is growing. And it’s growing very rapidly.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPATE: Right, right. So
MOSSBERG: Yes, I’m going to say its 32 million, OK.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPATE: So you’re
LAMB: That was in the matters of Twitter talking about how many people follow them. What was your exasperation about?
MOSSBERG: Oh, I think they should be I didn’t see any reason why they wouldn’t say how many people followed them. I think people ought to disclose as much as is reasonable. To me that was a reasonable thing to disclose.
LAMB: Are you worried about the power of outfits like Google or Microsoft? Does that matter?
MOSSBERG: Well, we have a lot of power centers in our society. And I worry about the power of companies that have a lot of whose products have a lot of control over our lives in certain ways or who we depend on quite a lot.
But I also, you know, I worry about world hunger. I worry about the economy. I worry about the planet. I worry about politicians and bankers and people in the media as well having out sized influence sometimes and doing the wrong thing. Just it’s me what worries me personally I worry about a bunch of stuff like that.
LAMB: How much longer do you plan to do this?
MOSSBERG: I have no plans to stop doing it unless The Journal decides that I should stop doing it and I’ve had no indication that they feel that way, so I’m going to keep doing it as long as people keep reading it. And at the moment they are.
LAMB: Do you have any idea what your next column will be about?
MOSSBERG: I have some idea but I’m not going to tell you.
LAMB: And why is that?
MOSSBERG: Because I tend not to broadcast what I’m going to do next in advance.
LAMB: Can you remember the worse kickback you got since you’ve been doing this since ’91 from any manufacturer?
MOSSBERG: There have been a couple that have tried to get me fired. It hasn’t happened recently but toward the beginning when it was a newer phenomenon to have somebody like me reviewing their products. There were a couple that tried to get me fired.
I actually didn’t even find out about those cases until much later because the editors in New York just, you know, refused and didn’t tell me about it until later.
LAMB: Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal. We thank you very much.
MOSSBERG: Well, I’m delighted to be here. Thanks, Brian.