I think I'm trying to say that most tech pundits are dumb

The Industry Standard's Jake Widman circles back to question several technology pundits who a year ago pooh-poohed the iPhone as a poorly designed first dabbling by Apple — or worse, the device that would bring down Apple entirely.

Many did not respond. Those that did had varying responses, from Rob Enderle's claim that it's "still [not] a great phone" to others who eat a little crow and say that it's obviously striking a chord for some buyers. A few actually had purchased iPhones for themselves.

It's easy to snigger at a pundit's failure to properly forecast, but let's be fair: the iPhone could have been a flop...if the mass market's needs reflected those of tech pundits. (And while the iPhone certainly has captured perhaps more than its share of attention in the tech press, it's still not a smash hit yet. There are still only a few million iPhones on the market.)

If anything, Widman's piece underlines one of my own personal bugbears about the technology prognostication business: most of us writing about technology don't know all that much about the market in general. Sure, I think I've got a pretty good grip on trends by dint of writing about the consumer electronics market almost daily for five years, but I've been wrong about the future as much or more than I've been right. (Bluetooth headphones are going to be the hit accessory of 2006, everyone!)

I'm not trying to hide incompetence behind flippancy, either. I really do try to think this stuff through and offer my best guess. ("I predict the far flung future of...2010!") But most technology writers have a journalism background, not a hands-on technical one, and even those of us who came out of the IT or engineering world (like I did, nominally, with a couple of years of mediocre web development and sysadminning) rarely have a good grasp of design, advertising, or market forces that affect the success of a product as much or more than technical specifications.

The obvious point of reference is the iPod. When I took over Gizmodo there was still a very active debate about whether or not the iPod would succeed in the MP3 player market. A couple of years later it was clear from sales numbers alone that Apple had dominated the market, but that didn't stop vocal internet geeks from decrying not just the iPod as it applied to their needs (fair) but as it applied to the millions of others who seemed to like their iPods just fine (unfair). Even Microsoft spent millions launching platform after platform to try to fight off the iPod well after it was clear the market had spoken.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Someone just handed me a melon.

I think I remember my point: holding pundits who write incendiary articles to the fire is a good thing. Keeps them honest. But even when the pundits are right, it's mostly all a wild guess. I don't mean to undermine my entire livelihood here, but I don't think it's a big secret that most of us in this industry are just regular technology fans with no special insight or skills beyond the luxury of a job that lets us pay slightly closer attention to our subject matter than our readers.

I hope that doesn't sound really pessimistic. And if fact there are many really smart writers out there doing good work. (Mike Masnick, Tim Wu (who didn't like the iPhone!), Loyd Case and Jason Cross, much of the Ars gang, etc.; few I would saddle with the term "pundit".) I probably should have just called Dvorak a toolish prevaricator and been on my way. In fact this whole article is a mess, but when you're a tech pundit, you've got to publish whatever you end up writing, even if it's completely ludicrous, or else people might stop reading.

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  1. I do not believe that the popularity of the iPhone is a reasonable counter argument to those who claim it was poorly designed, etc.

    The Hummer was immensely popular among those who could afford them. American Idol is popular, and so on.

    Popularity =/= good

    1. @LogrusZed: That’s a pretty good point. My only quibble: American Idol is extremely well designed.

  2. Well with AI I would place it into a category more along the lines of a death camp. Something which was well designed to do horrible things.

  3. @#1, Logruszed: It is indeed a poor counter-argument, but that’s not to say better ones don’t exist. There’s pretty compelling evidence that iPhone buyers also make heavy use of their iPhones, and that does suggest good design.

  4. Who cares about tech pundits’ predictions, anyway? If there’s any value to this kind of journalism, it’s in the information, not the opinions. (That makes the comments the least valuable thing of all.) I hope this doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

  5. Yeah, so instead of being all “It’s horrible and it won’t sell” or “It’s great and everybody needs to buy one!”, why don’t you just tell us what it does and let us decide for ourselves?

    Actually open the box, use it for a week and then tell us about it, not about your opinion on whether it will be a best seller.

  6. If pundits were any good, they probably wouldn’t need to make a living selling their punditry as journalism or analysis.

    That’s not just a “future is impossible to predict” thought-stopper, though. I find it quite intriguing to think that there *are* real, proven experts, but they’re all working as consultants.

    Better still, perhaps such savants are the best designers: they can predict the likely future very accurately, and their genius is to force it to happen sooner, and to their employer’s benefit.

  7. I’ve been a tech writer now for close to 10 years…prior to that I worked in the cutting edge in tech for another 6. I’ve written for O’Reilly, ZDNet, and tons of other tech publications…and I gotta say I’ve had a pretty good run of predictions. And the reasons I do pretty well is that I:

    a) never forget that I’m a user/customer. I always think of myself and the people I know when writing about something. If I wouldn’t actually part with my hard earned money for a product or service…I know it is doomed…no matter how cool it is.

    b) I always get spousal approval. If my wife doesn’t get it…a lot of folks won’t.

    I’ve been off on a few things…but mostly predicting what I think is the best technology on the horizon…and even then it is generally because I’m too early to the party.

    On the pundit side however…these are folks who are paid to say crazy things to generate buzz and pageviews…whether quoted or actually writing the piece. Trash talk sells…we all know that.

    I bought my iPhone the day they went on sale. I’ve never regretted it and it far exceeds any phone I’ve had…and I’ve had a lot. No device is perfect but it comes pretty darn close…close enough that my die hard Windows loving/anti cell phone brother-in-law is going to buy an iPhone and MacBook this year.

  8. I think that some tech writers, like professional opinionists in general, are contrary simply for the sake of being contrary. I mean, if they say the same thing as everyone else–such as, the iPhone is a pretty amazing, if somewhat expensive, bit of technology–then why would their services be needed? Better to be wrong, but talked about. That is John Dvorak’s career in a nutshell.

  9. well said joel!

    i think that what you’re saying applies to any skilled job such as tech, mechanic, writer, or even doctor. we make an educated guess about a situation based on previous experience. sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. with a little luck it’s mostly the former.

  10. prediction is hard in all fields. When a bunch of Russia experts (from various Western countries) were called to explain why they didn’t predict the collapse of the USSR in 1988, their explanations were all variations of “if this small variable was different, my prediction would have worked”, rather than “yeah, I completely goofed”.
    (tech writing so very much = poli sci)

    what’s interesting in predictions is the factors the predictor chooses to emphasize as important; the actual prediction itself is less important than getting a grasp on where things could go.

  11. Joel, have you already seen James Burke’s Connections?

    p.s. Though I think the iPod was obvious given Saehan’s MPman in 1997, which Diamond later licensed as the Rio. Nearly all other electronics manufacturers at the time wanted to play it safe by adding MP3-CD support to their portable CD players, but what they failed to realize was that it’s precisely the battery-draining and stabilization costs of rotating a disc media that made the compact disc terrible for portable music, while solid-state (ok, hard drives have platters too) solves all of those very same problems. (The MPman ran off a single AA battery.)

    The iPhone is much more ambivalent because it lacks so many features found in a typical Blackberry / “smartphone”, and in my experience nearly all Apple users are/were also using T-Mobile since they had the most affordable data plans (and didn’t cripple their phones, such as disabling Bluetooth profiles). So people feel like they’re making many trade-offs with buying-in to the iPhone. (Although, signing up for a plan through iTunes at home was a brilliant step forward; one which Amazon seems to have copied if you buy a Blackberry with T-Mobile, but not nearly as smooth as Apple did it.)

  12. ‘Yes, I was wrong, but I was wrong in the RIGHT direction. Think of the disaster if I had been wrong the other way! At least with my faulty prediction, we were all SAFE!’

    My advice: apply the positive counterfactual argument.

  13. One great thing that my old company decided to do (next to the many, many dumb and awful things) was implement a massive programme of customer interviews based around Kim & Mauborgne’s “Value Innovation” methodology. Going into people’s homes and seeing how they felt about services and used them every day was revelatory.

    In my experience, many of the people who knock the iPhone (and Apple in general) fall into the same elephant trap that most product designers also fall into – in order to be a perfect product, it has to have the largest, most comprehensive feature set possible, appealing to all possible consumers. To be better, it has to be “more”.

    Then a consumer gets their hands on the product, and faced with a bewildering array or options, acronyms and interfaces designed by cocaine addled spiders, they give up.

    For example, people complained that the iPod didn’t have an FM radio built-in. Well, it wasn’t designed as an MP3 player AND FM radio, so that is hardly suprising. My Nokia phone *does* have FM radio built in, but that only works if I remember to bring the special FM-aerial earpiece thingie, and can be bothered to work out the badly designed software that makes it work. Guess what – I don’t use it to listen to radio – it is too much effort.

    The iPhone 3G doesn’t do video calls – what an omission! But when I got a Nokia N80, I hunted through my phone address book to find someone who also had a 3G phone, and spent 20 mins discussing with him how we could possibly get a video call going. In the end, even after him turning his 3G on (it was off to conserve battery, as everyone I know who has a 3G phone does), the calls failed… Vodafone and Orange did not allow cross-network video calls. Guess what – I never tried to call anyone using video again. And my next Nokia was an 8800 – a Series 40 “dumbphone” that pretty much just makes calls.

    In order for most products to be better, they usually need to do less, but better. And in that respect, Apple does pretty well. They pick clearly defined market segments, and build them great products. That every product does not appeal to every consumer is a sign of their product design strength, not weakness.

    That said, I believe the lack of copy/paste on iPhone is just plain weird in its dumbness.

  14. In the end, even after him turning his 3G on (it was off to conserve battery, as everyone I know who has a 3G phone does)

    Funny, everyone I know would rather spend the extra $40 for a replacement battery that lasts twice as long, rather than thinking about turning their features on and off.

    That every product does not appeal to every consumer is a sign of their product design strength, not weakness.


  15. When I read a technology article I’m much more interested in whether I want to buy it than if other people will.

    OK, there’s exceptions. If I’m an investor or retailer I might care, or if the gadget only works at its best if there are many other users, then sure.

    But otherwise, being a good tech writer doesn’t require understanding the market that well. Most readers only want a good analysis of whether they should buy the product.

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