This past Friday (iPhone Day), I had the opportunity to chat with Leo Laporte while he stood in line waiting for an iPhone. Thirteenth in line and with about six hours left until 6PM, Leo and I discussed what The Digital Home is all about and how he got his start in the tech industry. Leo talked about Tech TV, shared who his inspirations were when he first started and even hinted that his new TV show Lab with Leo may be coming to the United States.
For those who don't know, my love for technology journalism started when I heard Leo, Patrick Norton and the rest of the Screen Savers talking about getting the most out of technology. And while Leo points to men like John C. Dvorak and Steve Wozniak as his inspiration, I consider Leo to be the main reason I got into this business. So, without further ado, enjoy my interview with Leo Laporte.
DR: Hi Leo, thank you for joining me. To start out, can you tell me a little bit about how you got started in this business?
LL: I started in college radio and have been doing radio for 30 years. When I first started, I was a DJ and did general talk and didn't start doing computer talk until 1990. In 1990, I had John C. Dvorak on the show and I was a computer hobbyist from the late 70s on. I was even writing for computer mags and so forth, but it never crossed over into my profession - it was just a hobby. I wrote for computer magazines just to get free stuff. I wrote reviews of the first Mac software in 1984 for Byte and for InfoWorld and wrote Atari reviews and so forth, but in 1990 I had Dvorak on the radio show and I really enjoyed it. It was really fun, we really got along well together and in 1991, I started doing a computer radio show and we syndicated it. By 1992 or 1993 thats all I was doing - tech and radio. Thats all I've been doing ever since.
DR: Where can we find your work?
LL: Well there are 3 main things I do. I still do a radio show which is syndicated on Premier Radio Networks, and thats all over the country. I also do a TV show you can't see in the United States, which is on in Canada and Australia. I go to Canada one week a month to do that, and so that left me three weeks a month where I wasn't doing anything, and foolish me, I should have said "yay time off." Instead I'm doing podcasts and I now do 10 different podcasts on all sorts of tech subjects on my TWIT network.
DR: Might we see your show, Lab with Leo in the United States?
LL: Yeah, we're trying to. It was being produced in Toronto by Rogers and they hired a production company in Vancouver - a young and very talented bunch. We're shooting it in high-def and this production company is very aggressively pursuing a US outlet, and I think because its a high-def show, we have a better chance of getting it onto a US channel. I expect we will have it on a US channel by the end of the year.
DR:Who was your inspiration to get into the tech industry?
LL: Dvorak was my mentor in terms of tech broadcasting. What John did was give me credibility and he was very generous in that; he had a lot of credibility. He was and probably still is the number one computer columnist in the world. And so by him working with me on the radio and letting me answer questions, it gave me a lot of credibility. Inspirational in terms of the early days? When I started doing this, we were all doing it together. People like Woz (Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder) and the early tech pioneers were my inspiration back then and Woz is absolutely still an inspiration.
DR: What is the most rewarding aspect of your career?
LL: Absolutely the audience that we have found. A lot of times when you're a broadcaster, its like talking into a vacuum because you don't see your audience and you don't really hear from them and so you don't really know who they are. But that's what's really exciting about covering tech because it's such a niche and the audience really steps forward. It's the technology that really makes that possible, so especially with podcasting now, everything we do is a two-way street. That two-way street is what's so exciting about web 2.0 -- it's about communities. So I think without a doubt, the community that sprung up at Tech TV and Screen Savers was really a community, and that community has followed us; not just me, but Patrick Norton my co-host, Kevin Rose, all of us who were on Tech TV have really benefited with this incredibly community. We stayed in touch with it and it supported our endeavors. Without them, none of this would have happened.
DR: What does the Digital Home mean to you and how would you describe it?
LL: The key to making a Digital Home is the home devices. Getting all of your devices talking to each other so that media that is stored in one place can be easily viewed and listened to in other areas of the home and then connecting that home network up to the larger network giving you access to the almost endless supply of content out there is what the Digital Home is to me. And that idea is exciting. Once we get to that point, it'll be great, and wer'e so far away, but a lot further along than we were. I mean, things still don't talk to each other well and it's hard to get it working. Most of the questions, if you really boil it down, I get on my radio show are of the order of "how do I get this movie, record, tape into my computer and then how do I get it into my home theater or stereo system?" People are still stymied by copy protection, incompatible hardware, a lack of standards and a lack of understanding, frankly. Content producers and hardware companies think thats what consumers really want, but the bottom line for consumers is we want to watch what we want, when we want, how we want. And until those barriers are gone, the Digital Home is going to be a bunch of frustration and disconnection.
DR: What is your favorite product of all time?
LL: Remember, I'm in line for an iPhone, so this answer could change in 6 hours, but right now I'd have to say my Mac. My Mac is my power tool, it's the thing I use, it's the digital hub for everything I do and I think Apple has done a really good job of creating powerful hardware that is easy to use and gives me the flexibility I want. Of all of my toys, that is my favorite right now.
DR: What do you make of the iPhone?note: this interview was conducted a few hours before the iPhone release
LL: Well, there's no way you can live up to the hype you're seeing. It has been 6 months of drum beating that is unprecedented and I've never seen anything like it. I didn't expect there to be a line here today; I can't believe theres a line! This is a little, tiny small town store and there are lines everywhere. I'm talking to people all over the country and this easily trumps anything we've seen before with the Playstation 3 or the Wii and it's not the second coming, its just a phone.
There are clearly flaws. You know, I'm sitting next to, it's really sweet, a 16-year old kid who saved up all of his money and this is the phone of his dreams. He's here 6 hours early to get this iPhone and this is really important to him and I just hope people like that aren't hugely disappointed. I think they'll be happy. I think the iPhone is easily the best iPod ever, but the big question is whether it will be the best phone ever. Now, I think that's a pretty low bar and it's hard for it not to be the best phone ever.
Now, will it be as good a phone as everyone hopes it will be? No. There are some severe problems: the EDGE network, the lack of a battery, the lack of GPS, the lack of voice commands, the fact you can't change ring tones; theres a list of a dozen flaws in the iPhone. I think the second generation will answer a lot of those and I think even before the second generation, Apple will answer a lot of those, but I think the biggest thing that reviewers aren't talking about but is bigger than everyone realizes is that its a closed platform. And if Apple doesn't put a chat client onto it, we can't either and that's unusual. Most phones allow you to install additional stuff. Even the Sidekick, which is the most locked down phone I've ever seen, at least allows you to buy a few vetted apps to put on there. The lack of a chat app is a huge thing. I'm hoping Apple will put iChat on there soon. It's a huge lack and not having that is absurd, but all of that can be avoided by allowing third-party applications. Look, if Apple wants to vet them, fine, but you've got to allow those.
DR: Will the iPhone be as big as everyone thinks?
LL: If you think back to the first iPod, it was very much like this. It was a landmark device that changed the industry completely. Was it perfect? Far from it, and subsequent iPods have addressed a lot of the failings of the first iPod. But that first iPod, as flawed as it was, changed everything and I think the iPhone will be a lot like that.
DR: If you could do it all over again, what would you change?
LL: Well it has been pretty much a fairy tale ride for me, so it's hard for me to change everything. I think the most gratifying thing for me is that you don't need to do it in mainstream media and you can do it yourself and find an audience. That is what podcasting has taught me. Now could we have done it five or ten years ago? Probably not. I don't think there is anything I could change, but the lesson I've learned is that especially when it comes to covering tech, the mainstream media is never gong to let you cover it the way it should be covered and the best way is to cover it yourself.
I've been very lucky: I'm still doing mainstream media, but it's with two groups that give me a free hand and I've been successful enough that they realize that I know what to do and how to deliver tech content. But Tech TV was an exercise in frustration. We had a lot of managers who thought they knew what we should be doing and they were wrong and I knew they were wrong, and ultimately they killed the channel. From that lesson I learned, in the long run, its better to do your own thing.