One of the delights of being a computer journalist is that people assume you know the answer to everything silicon. At one extreme, this leads to the I'm Off Duty syndrome: for example, the barman at the Bunch of Grapes overheard a conversation I was having one evening, and subsequently brought along a sheaf of listings to demonstrate a problem he was having with his LaserJet and Word for Windows. I knew nothing of this until I bought two pints of Young's Special later on that week and had my change returned with a pile of A4... Rule One of journalism is never upset the people providing the drinks, so I washed down my bile with a swig of beer and sorted him out gracefully -- beware, if you try the same trick on a computer hack at a party when you don't have a major brewery behind you.
Packard Bell has launched a new series of home computers. They are -- to be honest -- not the sort of thing to really zap the tastebuds or pump the adrenaline, but they're OK. It can be hard sometimes to give new products the appraisal they deserve: I lose count of how many machines pass though PC Magazine's doors every month, but it can approach the hundred when we're doing one of our big round-ups and there's a good clutch of First Looks cooking. Highlight of the launch was the point at which Packard Bell announced a distribution deal via Dixons, and someone from BHS in the audience was minded to ask a question that made certain comments regarding the noted high street electrical goods retailer of the first part that cannot, I'm sure, be legally repeated here.
Bob Kane, our shiny new American editor-in-chief, turned up from a schmoozathon in Brum sometime later. He's settling in well, we feel, and is slowly coming to terms with the interesting and in many ways unorthodox bunch of people within PC Magazine. I was startled, however, when he greeted me with "Hello, Binky, how's it going?"
Netscape hears that I'm writing the review of Internet Explorer versus Netscape Navigator (actually, since the products have been in public beta for so long this is the third time I'm writing this particular review. But the things are finished and we can at last say what they're like without hedging our bets). The inevitable phone call comes in from the PR company:
"Hello, how's it going?"
"Err, fine, fine."
"Are we winning?"
"You'll have to wait and see, we don't normally discuss what we're writing until it's published"
"OK. I'll get our marketing manager to call you..."
"Really, don't bother. I've been in the briefings, I've used your product since it was called Mosaic, I've read the blurb, I've shaken hands with Marc Andreessen"
"... just in case you have any questions"
"Well, if you do."
"No. Thanks, but no."
. Finish the phone call and carry on writing. Phone rings. It's the marketing manager.
Goodbye Hobbit! Hobbit Coward, our Productivity Editor, is leaving after five years on the job to go and work for another publisher doing even more technical magazines about even more obscure subjects. The place won't be the same without his unique persona. His name suggests a short hairy person with a beer belly and thick glasses: most people who've heard of him are thus utterly surprised when a very tall, very slender black guy dressed to kill hoves into view. Hobbs was one of the original team, and five years in any job in this business is quite exceptional.
Productivity -- the green pages at the back of the magazine -- is a very difficult manor, but one that we know is much loved by the readers. To pull together so much technical information every month from a team of freelancers, check it for accuracy (often difficult, because the people who write for it are usually some of the best experts in their fields and who else do you ask?) and make sure it's relevant is time-consuming and painstaking. I write the OnLine column every month, and that's hard enough to find good, meaty contents for -- running the whole section is one of the many jobs on the magazine that'd turn any normal person into so much marrowbone with meaty lumps of jelly.
I had hoped to reveal details of a brand-new computer I was invited to see this afternoon, but I can't. In fact, I can't say who I saw, what they showed me or anything about their plans: I am under NDA. Non-disclosure agreements are one of the most stupifyingly ridiculous aspects of computer journalism: they are pseudo-legal documents that bind our tongues until the people showing us the goods decide we can relay what we've seen to the world at large.
The principles aren't too silly. Publications such as PC Magazine have quite long lead times; it takes a few weeks from us getting some information to you getting it in your hands. When a product is to be launched between those two points, it makes sense for us to be given a preview provided we promise not to breath a word until whatever it is, is unveiled. Fair enough, that way we have time to do our research and write the story and you don't have to wait for months afterwards. The manufacturer gets talked about, but no competitor's had a chance to sneak in and mess things up.
I have no problems with this. I do have problems with being given a page of inpenetrable legal jargon with no time to digest it, let alone have it checked out, and being asked to sign it there and then. If the company doesn't trust us, what business has it showing us secrets anyway? Any journalist worth their salt knows that information can be leaked in a zillion different ways, NDA or no NDA. If they do trust us -- and at PC Magazine, like most magazines, what we do is very public and we try very hard to be trustworthy -- then asking us to slap our moniker on so many weasel words is insulting. And not telling us about the NDA until we turn up to see the product so temptingly dangled in front of our noses -- I hope you're reading this, Company X -- is not going to make us think fondly of anyone.
It was a very interesting computer. You'd love to hear about it. I'd love to write about it. We can't.