What happened to the guts?

by Nicholas Petreley

What happened to the guts in mainstream publications? I recall back in the 80s InfoWorld pressured Lotus into ditching its copy protection scheme by docking Lotus 1-2-3 several points in reviews because of the inconvenience. I believe Lotus was the first to buckle, but other vendors jumped on the bandwagon and abandoned copy protection. Fast forward to today. Not only has copy protection come back from the grave, it has risen like a juggernaut zombie bent on eating everyone's brains. Worse, many consumers and writers alike seem to be unscrewing their scalps and willingly offering up the meal. "I want the latest iThing, it's so cool!" Sure, you'll find appropriate outrage in Linux Journal and a handful of renegade publications like the Register. But what happened to the mainstream journals with the guts of yesteryear?

Of one thing I am fairly certain. Microsoft all but eliminated mainstream software competition. As a result, Microsoft became the primary source of advertising revenue for mainstream publications. You don't bite the hand that feeds you. So instead of publishing issues calling for a worldwide boycott of Vista because it focuses more on what you can't do than what you can do, you see special editions praising Vista as the greatest advancement in computing since Windows 95. Granted we all know that Windows 95 was a dog from day one, but by the 90s, the mainstream press had already become rampant with Microsoft sycophants and they pushed Windows 95 like it was the second coming.

That may explain why the press still pussyfoots around Microsoft, but it doesn't explain why you don't see the mainstream journals applying pressure to other vendors which also focus more on what customers cannot do than what they can. Perhaps advertising revenue has dropped so much that publishers are afraid to offend virtually anyone.

However, while Microsoft may have all but eliminated competition in Windows software, competition still exists in categories like media players, cell phones, and more. Wherever there's competition, vendors can't afford to pull advertising for very long. Competition helps publications to be honest, because if Vendor X doesn't advertise, Vendor Y will, and Vendor Y will sell more products. Therefore, Vendor X may throw a fit and pull ads for a few issues, but Vendor X knows it has to advertise once it cools down.

I would love to see mainstream publications exploit this competition. Review media players and give the lowest scores to those devices that limit what customers can do with the music they download. Review cell phones and flunk practically every phone and provider for locking customers into restrictive plans. (Who does that leave? I'm not really sure, but that should tell you just how bad things have become.)

In short, I'd love to see a mainstream publication become an advocate for the consumer once again.

As noted above, there are exceptions, including Linux Journal, most other FOSS-centered publications and even The Register. But we're the little guys. When it comes to the big publishers, I'm afraid there's just a bit too much truth in a joke I heard on a Nickelodeon cartoon called Kappa Mikey. The character Guano cries in anguish and says something along the lines of, "Oh, no! If I'm exposed as a fraud I'll be unfit to work in any industry except business and journalism!" I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I heard that line. If it weren't for the small guys, like us, I'd be ashamed to work in this field.