the NDA game
Another major sieve? The FCC. Since companies are required to seek approval for their products, the FCC database is a gold mine for preproduction information. All it takes is some dedicated geeks to dig around, using means both aboveboard and otherwise, to find complete specs on gadgets that may or may not be under embargo. Any database is a possible leak opportunity, in fact--last September, crawlers combing the Staples database turned up information on the PalmOne Tungsten T5 long before it appeared on shelves--and long before PalmOne's nondisclosure agreement with various press organizations expired.
And that brings me to the crux of my point today. Thanks to the Internet, there's a new model for controlling information--that is, a complete lack of control. Bloggers, rumor sites, and even inside sources are running the show, but tech manufacturers are still stuck in their Cold War-like product release behaviors. They tightly control the distribution of both goods and information, hoping to maintain absolute secrecy in order to generate maximum results (that is, buzz) upon release, as well as protect any possible industrial advantage. But at this point, the only ones who are still following those rules are the journalists whose job it is to give you complete reviews of new products, so that you can make well-considered buying choices. Here at CNET, for example, the way we review products is to obtain a loaner review unit from a company, which is always returned, and test it for our reviews. We are never, ever paid to review products, and the review unit deal with vendors relies on a well-honed, ages-old system of honoring embargoes in exchange for access. But thanks to the new model of leak, rumor, and slow-in-coming confirmation, that system is becoming increasingly untenable. And you're the ones who are missing out.
No Tiger for you!
As you know, Mac OS X Tiger was released today. It shouldn't surprise you to know that Apple is a big vendor offender, when it comes to getting its hardware and software into the hands of reviewers, who can then helpfully inform your buying decisions in a timely fashion. I know--since my very first day as a tech journalist, and for the five years I spent on the Apple beat, the company tormented me by refusing to send hardware (its belief is that it's better to have the stuff on the shelves than in the hands of reviewers), withholding software until the last possible minute, then calling me to complain about the rare review that wasn't utterly glowing.
Apple also plays an ongoing shell game with the media, doling out preferential NDAs to a rotating cast of characters. In the past, it's been Time magazine, which landed a front-cover scoop in 2002, revealing the new iMac design. With Tiger, the lucky media outlets were the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (subscription required). The rest of the major media outlets, including CNET, did not receive that type of treatment, and their loyal readers had to wait a tiny bit longer for the reviews. That's annoying, but it happens all the time. What's really annoying is that all that hairsplitting and embargo favoritism didn't make a bit of difference to you, really. A guy's getting sued for leaking everything there is to know about Tiger onto the Web months ago. We're freaking out over being scooped, because we were a few hours late in telling you details about the product that you already know. What you have to wait for is a professional evaluation of quality, as opposed to the speculation and wildly biased commentary that's been all over the Web for months. Shouldn't Apple want that evaluation on the market as soon as possible?
Similar situations occur all the time. Upstart company OQO gave the Journal an NDA that was a day earlier than one given to any other media outlet--and refused to budge on its agreement with those other companies, even though a review was out in the wild. Rumors about PalmOne's LifeDrive recently started hitting fan sites, but PalmOne's not revealing any information--even though there's information all over the Web, accurate or otherwise. Get a group of tech journalists together and you'll hear them all complaining about the same companies regularly withholding review units or demanding a mountain of paperwork in exchange for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it loan period. But we've made these deals, over the years because we had to, in order to get the products into the labs, and tell you what to buy and what not to buy in a helpful fashion. Nowadays, our Faustian bargain is breaking down.
Who will blink first?
On the one hand, the media are the idiots in this story. We're the ones running around, tearing our hair out, agonizing over breaking NDAs on products that have been completely revealed by so-called unofficial sources. Why are we doing this? Our argument, just so you know, is that we're preserving our relationships with these vendors. We're keeping them happy, and keeping the review units coming, by agreeing to withhold full details and reviews until they've determined it's the right time.
But those companies are making even bigger mistakes. Because the reviews and details we're sitting on are accurate, reliable, and tested, unlike some of the rumors and leaks. And the result is that you've already consumed your fill of information about a product, whether that information is correct or not, and you've gotten a chance to judge the vendor for its draconian lawsuits or other leak-crushing, bad-PR-generating behavior. So, by the time our review comes out, you've long since decided whether you're buying or not buying the product--and you might make a mistake, in the absence of the review, that leaves you with a sour feeling about the manufacturer that won't ever go away. And in that case, we're just engaging in petty little spats between journalists and vendors--but the joke? That is on you.
We media types need to quit kowtowing to manufacturers who are trying in vain to hold on to the last shred of control they think they have. Those manufacturers need to wake up and smell the RSS feeds--the information's already out there. Quit acting like you're doling out spoonfuls of sugar to the deserving few. Your audience is getting its sugar elsewhere.