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Columnist revealed as company's non-existent CTO

ZDNet investigation reveals that an InfoWorld columnist was masquerading as the chief technology officer for a Windows metrics company.

Devil Mountain Software has a bit of a credibility problem, according to a ZDNet investigation that revealed, among other things, that its chief technology officer is actually an alias created by a tech blogger.

Larry Dignan, ZDNet's editor in chief, revealed the ruse Sunday in a report headlined "Why we don't trust Devil Mountain Software (and neither should you)." Among his organization's findings were that the small software company's CTO, Craig Barth, was actually a longtime InfoWorld columnist named Randall C. Kennedy.

ZDNet, which is a sister publication of CNET, said it had intended to publish its findings Monday but was compelled to publish early after InfoWorld publicly severed ties with Kennedy. InfoWorld Editor in Chief Eric Knorr outlined the reasons for the move in a blog post Sunday:

On Friday, Feb. 19, we discovered that one of our contributors, Randall C. Kennedy, had been misrepresenting himself to other media organizations as Craig Barth, CTO of Devil Mountain Software (aka exo.performance.network), in interviews for a number of stories regarding Windows and other Microsoft software topics. Devil Mountain Software is a business Kennedy established that specializes in the analysis of Windows performance data. There is no Craig Barth, and Kennedy has stated that this fabrication was a misguided effort to separate himself (or more accurately, his InfoWorld blogger persona) from his Devil Mountain Software business.

ZDNet's investigation found that Barth didn't seem to exist on the Internet except when quoted in stories that appeared on sites owned by IDG, the publisher of InfoWorld and Computerworld. The company, which sells software that measures the performance of Windows has been, as Dignan described it, "a thorn in the side of Microsoft for years and is adept at garnering headlines." Devil Mountain Software, as Dignan points out, regularly makes headlines with reports on operating system and browser performance, with a special focus on Windows.

One recent report, highlighted by IDG's Computerworld, asserted that 86 percent of machines using Windows 7 were regularly using up to 95 percent of their available RAM. That, according to the fictious Barth quoted in the article, was more than twice the amount of slowdowns caused on Windows XP machines.

That story "raised a storm of criticism" from disbelieving readers and Windows bloggers, according to Computerworld's Gregg Keizer, the reporter who wrote that story and many others quoting Barth. Keizer said Sunday he spoke with Barth "15 to 20 times since December 2007" but did not know until last week that Barth and Kennedy were the same person.

"There was a phone number and a man behind the phone number," he wrote in a Computerworld blog. "The guy seemed to know his technical stuff."

Keizer said he confronted Barth with evidence he was Kennedy but didn't say how long he had been suspicious of a connection. He said Barth denied the charge but that Kennedy later e-mailed him with a confession.

However, as Keizer notes, the damage had already been done.

"Readers who scoffed at the data he presented last week have all that much more reason to doubt," he said. "Even people who accepted the data as valid, like me, have to wonder where the slippery slope of deception ends."

In an e-mail to CNET, Kennedy described himself as a "well-intentioned fool" and characterized the creation of the alter ego as a "little white lie" that was necessary to keep his controversial "shock jock"-style of writing at the publication separate from his identity as the co-developer of Windows Sentinel--a performance-monitoring tool co-branded with InfoWorld.

"Shortly after Craig Barth's debut, I informed InfoWorld Executive Editor Galen Gruman of what had transpired. Galen and I had worked closely together on the launch of Windows Sentinel, and while he did not approve of my decision he nevertheless made no attempt to alert IDG management or otherwise expose the ruse," Kennedy said. "And while I cannot confirm that Eric Knorr did or did not know of my 'masquerade,' I somehow doubt that he wasn't in the loop since the entire sad affair didn't come to a head for nearly a year after it began."

In addition to the troubling disclosure issues surrounding Kennedy's relationship with the software company and IDG, ZDNet found that the company's software had significant potential privacy issues that could allow it to peek into customer systems and that one high-profile "client" cited by the non-existent Barth to promote the software says it has not actually implemented the software.

InfoWorld also said it has removed all references to Kennedy from its site and is no longer offering Devil Mountain Software's Windows Sentinel.

A search of CNET archives revealed that while the company was cited as the source of one story published by CNET News, Barth was not cited or quoted in any CNET report.

Updated at 3:30 p.m. PST with Kennedy comment and at 5 p.m. with Keizer comment.