2009: The year tech blogging died

Most years are full of idiocy. But I think I can make a decent case for this year being the worst on record, at least from the perspective of writing about technology.

This was the year when tech writing plumbed new depths of stupidity, repetition, and sheer unadulterated circle jerking. It was the year when blogs picked up each other’s stuff, no matter how ridiculous, and strove to take it to the next level of dumb. You get what you pay for – and with tech writing, nothing could be more true.

There were three perfect examples of the tech blog world’s increasing descent into infantilism and irrelevancy. These were, in no particular order, the CrunchPad; the Apple Tablet; and pretty much everything written about the iPhone and market share.

Example One: The CrunchPad
TechCrunch – which almost defines awful tech blogging on a daily basis – was guilty of probably the worst example of narcissistic stupidity with its foray into actually trying to make a product.

Now making products is hard. Very hard. I have nothing but admiration for people who get up off their behinds and ship a product, because it’s a tough thing to do. Even the shittiest products usually take thousands of man-hours and thought to bring to market. In fifteen years of writing about tech, I’ve been privileged to know hundreds of people at companies all over the world who have managed to ship stuff. It’s tough.

So when Mike Arrington – the blowhard’s blowhard – decided he was going to create a product – the CrunchPad –  ship it at an absurd price point, and all within the space of a year I was prepared to applaud. Then I remembered this was Arrington we were talking about, and knew without a moment’s uncertainty that it was going to implode at some point.

Lo and behold, it imploded. Why? Because making stuff is hard and writing about it is easy, and Arrington confused being a big wonk in the tiny world of tech media with actually being a serious businessman capable of harnessing the energy to ship a product.

What the CrunchPad demonstrated perfectly was the tech blog world’s hubris and utter lack of perspective. Just because you can bang out 200 words about what some drunk coder from Company X said at a party doesn’t make you capable of defining, designing and building a product – nor of harnessing other people to do so. And, more importantly, making a product which you and your tech blogging friends think is cool is an almost guaranteed method of creating something that no one else in the world will want.

Example two: The Apple “Tablet”
More words were probably written about this nonexistent product in 2009 than about all the great hardware that every company not called Apple actually shipped. Google now lists 1.8 million documents referencing “Apple tablet”. That compares to 20,700 documents referencing “Acer Tablet PC”. One of these companies has actually shipped tablet hardware. The other has not. Can you guess from those Google figures which one is which?

“Nonexistent?” you say. “But I’ve read all the details on TechBlogDailyShit, it’s launching in March with an OLED screen and will kick Amazon’s butt/save the publishing world/cure cancer!”

No. No. No.

What you have read is a load of stuff that bloggers in desperate search for page views have made up on the basis of bar-room rumours, anonymous emails, stuff some random guy posted on Twitter, and just general shit. No one, outside of probably a hundred people in and around Cupertino, have a solid line on what Apple is doing – if, in fact, it is doing anything.

Almost everything you have read about an Apple tablet is geek wish fulfilment, from people who stared at a lot of Star Trek merchandise when they were young and really, truly wanted a tricorder. This is standard practice with a lot of sites that cover Apple: they assume Apple is designing products not for ordinary people, but for them, the tech blogging elite. Well guess what: they’re wrong! Apple wants its products to sell outside Silicon Valley, so it does not take Robert Scoble as its typical customer.

Outside of possibly the Wall Street Journal, almost no media sources are doing any serious investigative reporting to actually find out what Apple is doing either. Why? Simple: Doing real investigative tech reporting takes time, effort and balls. What’s more, if you’re a tech blogger you don’t have to do it because you can write some second-hand speculative bullshit about the “Apple Tablet” and it will get you lots of page views. This will lead to some “blog network” owner like Arrington or Nick Denton paying you more, because you are paid on page views. And all without you having to make a single call or talk to a single real person. Result!

Seriously, the standard of investigative tech reporting now is so low that it makes me long for the days of MacOSRumors. Those guys had standards compared to what we have at the moment.

Example three: The iPhone and market share
Here’s a strange thing about the world of tech writing: there is an obsession with market share winners and losers which isn’t seen in any other product area. Of course, companies talk about their market share in all realms, whether they make cars or sell groceries. But what they don’t do is imagine that they will DIE AS A COMPANY unless they have what amounts to a legal monopoly.

In tech, though, we do this all the time. Nokia is DYING because its market share is falling compared to Apple. Apple is DYING because its market share isn’t as big as Microsoft. Microsoft is DYING because twelve and a half customers have stopped using Office in favour of Google Docs. Google is never dying, for reasons I have yet to fathom – I suspect they are either the golden child, or they simply give out better freebies than anyone else.

Is Mercedes dying because its share of the luxury car market isn’t over 80%? No. Is Samsung dying because it doesn’t dominate TVs? No. Is Bosch dying because it doesn’t sell the majority of drills in the world? No. Only in tech do we play this bullshit game.

Tech bloggers constantly play the zero sum game. For Apple to win, Microsoft must lose. For Microsoft to win, Google must lose. For Google to win, Apple must lose. And nowhere is this more obviously seen at the moment than in the world of the mobile phone.

The funny thing is that prior to the launch of the iPhone, you really didn’t see much writing about the mobile phone market that worked this way. No one wrote screaming headlines about Sony Ericsson dying because Nokia took a few points of market share that month. People didn’t talk about the impending end of Nokia when Motorola was sweeping all before it with the original StarTac.

Only with the influx of “tech geek bloggers” post-iPhone did you suddenly get the same kinds of breathless bullshit that characterised the computer media applied to mobiles. All of a sudden, these guys became experts in the dynamics of the mobile phone market and brought the same depth of analysis to it that they’d brought to things like the question of whether Duke Nukem Forever would ever get released.

The fact that they called the iPhone “the Jesus phone” tells you all you need to know about their lack of perspective and ego. Mobile phones were dull and stupid and now the computer guys were coming along to SAVE YOU ALL.

Earth calling tech bloggers: shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Where next Columbus?
I’d like to end this post on a high note, but I’m actually not in the mood for happy endings. There are some really sharp writers in the world of tech, but the problem is that they struggle to be heard over all the bullshit. Old hands like Kara Swisher and Mary Jo Foley do real reporting. Newer guys like CK Sample at least know how to write stuff which is entertaining, fun and (mostly!) accurate. John Gruber is always good value, even if he’s wrong rather more often than his biggest fans would admit.

But most of the best tech writing at the moment comes from people who don’t actually do it for a living. Odd posts, here and there, that shine light on to some small part of the tech world that they deal with on a daily basis. I’ll leave you to find them, but here’s a clue: they usually aren’t linked to from any of the big blogging networks.

(Photo by Vicki’s Pics, under a Creative Commons license)

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  • http://tidbits.com/ Glenn Fleishman

    I’ve been dealing with this problem as a journalist for many years. Someone will say (a colleague or non-journalist alike), “Apple is doomed.” I will say, “They have umpty-umpty billions of dollars in cash in the bank, are profitable every quarter, and selling products that people are apparently buying.”

    “Doomed!” they say.

    Same with Microsoft and Google. Both firms have stumbled in different ways; both are sitting on cash stashes larger in adjusted dollars than probably any company since the oil monopolies.

  • Ian Betteridge

    They’re all doomed, though. The CrunchPad will get them all! Oh no, wait… ;)

  • http://quietbabylon.com/ Tim Maly

    Please don’t leave us to find them!

    Trolling through the sewers of Tech writing is demoralizing enough as it is. You seem like you have your head screwed on right when it comes to this stuff, I’d like to read a linked list of the best of this writing.

  • Ian Betteridge

    Dammit Tim, now I’m actually going to have to do some work… :)

  • Jason Grossman

    Spot on, and Glenn Fleishman is spot on too. Remember when Apple’s share price crashed spectacularly, shortly before Jobs came back? At that point, Apple’s liquidiseable assets were worth more than the total of its shares. It had almost as much cash in the bank as its total share price! Does that happen in other industries?

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  • http://www.allpointsnorth.co.uk Chris Brennan

    It’s not dead it just needs ripping from its dead mother’s womb where it can be nurtured and looked after properly. Don’t most industries start like this? Lots of entrants to the market place of similar, mixed quality, then the best (if we’re lucky) float the the top and the rest die off leaving us with, generally, the better of the bunch. Though often some of the best are left behind with only dewey eyed old miseries trying to keep their memory alive.

    Eventually, the fapp chamber of news will have to die off. Roughly around the time someone asks if they’ve made any money yet. Surely?

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  • http://brendandonegan.wordpress.com Brendan

    You’re forgetting the ‘Nokia put a 3G radio in an internet tablet, that must mean they’re dumping the most succesful phone OS in history’ debacle.

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