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October 19, 2005
Why Walter Mossberg doesn't get Apple--or innovation.
I enjoy reading about the latest gadgets from engadget, shinyshiny, and the Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg. They're all pretty much the same in that they focus on two things--the features and how easy or hard it is to use them (shinyshiny, the self-proclaimed "girl's gadget site" looks at color and style too). That's valuable. That's good. But that's not nearly valuable or good enough.
Mossberg's Seal of Approval on the new video iPod is a case in point. He and his team do a very good job saying the latest iPod version is great for music but less so for video. The review talks about the small screen size, battery capacity, Desperate Housewives and all the stuff that blogs have been yakking about for days.
But what Mossberg doesn't do--what nearly all of the gadget blogs don't do--is go beyond the friendly front face of iPod to discuss the far more important back-end of innovation. The real story of the video iPod is that Steve Jobs did not line up the film industry behind it in any way similar to the way he lined up the music industry behind the original iPod. He got Disney, with whom he is personally in business with through his other company Pixar, to provide a bit of content. That's it.
Don't get me wrong. I think Disney's Bog Iger is a hero in this. He's showing the way for broadcast and film into the new world of disaggregation and distribution. But the rest of the "back-end" of the industry has to joing him or the video iPod isn't going to work. Without the film industry cooperating to download their movies for a simple and reasonable price, there can be no duplication of the success of the original iPod. This is the real story of latest iPod. It's one of failure of backend organization, not the success of yet another cool-looking device. Larry Keeley of Doblin says Apple is wildly successful because it innovates in seven spaces simultaneously. Doing great product design is only one of them.
Yes, Business Week also has a popular tech reviewer, Steve Wildstrom. But I like him because he really gets into all the backend systems stuff that makes any product or service great these days. Wildstrom gets innovation much better than Mossberg and I'm not saying that just because he's a colleague.
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I agree most of the reviews of gadgets tend to focus on features and use and completely miss the concept of innovation or have a very literalist view on the concept. To most people innovation means new products.My comment/ question is - don't the economics of ad sales drive the nature of how these reviews are written? Probably more so in the case of print because you tend to see big ads of those being reviewed in close proximity to the reviews. I think reviews are read with a skeptical eye because of these interests.I think the backend stuff can be just as interesting as the typical reviews. Something else many writers miss in product reviews that I think are important. 1. Empathy - real empathic understanding of the target user. 2. Utility - Does the item fulfill the everyday utilitarian needs or desires of the target user. Does it make sense to watch a tiny video on an iPod? Yes, if you commute on the train. Not for most users to be honest. Lastly, a "meal always tastes better if it is for free" and this can create a bias in the writing. Thus, the question of - do the products truly deliver value - doesn't always get answered because most reviewers don't pay for the items.
Posted by: Jon Myers at October 19, 2005 11:39 PM
I don't think innovation has to fit into consumer reviews. In the iPod example, for example, it's enough to tell readers that the machine doesn't have much programming available. I don't need to hear more than a sentence about Jobs' failings with Hollywood.
Posted by: steve baker at October 20, 2005 05:26 PM
Uh, hello? There is no video iPod. There is an iPod that happens also to display video. There is a big difference here. If all Video content, including Disney, went entirely away - the iPod would still sell like hotcakes, because the product is the same price as it has always been, and has still gotten slimmer, bigger hard disks, and a bit of a spruced up interface.
It's you who is missing the point. Video is a single bell or whistle on a product that is already briming with other bells and whistles. The fact the Steve lined up 4 or 5 shows worth of content from Disney just doesn't mean anything mor e than the video aspect got slightly more intriguing. Believe me, if for some strange reason, this "takes off" - and I would be really surprised if it did - Apple will make the video experience a lot better. And likely more integrated into your home computer.
Posted by: Ravi at October 21, 2005 09:54 PM