Walter Mossberg: Inspector gadget

When Walter Mossberg speaks, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the entire consumer electronics industry pay attention. That's because the personal technology guru is fighting a one-man crusade against fiddly mobile phones and rip-off computers. And, as he tells Leonard Doyle, though he may be winning some battles, the tech war has only just begun. Photographs by David S Holloway
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For an unremarkable-looking man who sits in an unexceptional office in Washington DC, Walter Mossberg has an extraordinary power over all our lives. The self-professed anti-techie technology writer began his first weekly "Personal Technology" column in The Wall Street Journal 16 years ago with the words, "Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it isn't your fault." Ever since, he has made it his business to ensure consumer electronics are suited not only to geeks, but to everyone. Yet Mossberg's judgements resonate far beyond the readership of The Wall Street Journal – he has been described, by Newsweek, as "arguably the most powerful arbiter of consumer tastes in the computer world today". No wonder Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of Apple Computers beat a path to his door.

Even if you're the kind of person who does his best to avoid gadgets of any kind, it's worth being reminded of the extent to which personal technology increasingly permeates our lives. Driving along the Washington Beltway on a crisp autumn day to meet Mossberg, life took a terrifying turn when the driver just ahead of me sliced across four lanes of busy traffic in her 4x4. It was only then that I noticed that she had a mobile phone clamped to her ear and was steering with one hand. More a stock-car race than an orderly commute, a trip on the Beltway – the six-lane highway that surrounds Washington DC – isn't for the faint of heart. But what really shocks me is the number of people chatting away, with one hand on the wheel.

When I mention my latest near-death experience to Mossberg, and ask him why Americans don't use the Bluetooth devices that even White Van Man has taken to wearing, he waves away my concerns. "They make people look like idiots and they have to be recharged every night," he says. "That's why Americans don't like wearing them." Don't blame the drivers, he suggests; if the mobile device they are using are not up to the mark, blame the mobile-phone manufacturers for not coming up with something more usable. As it happens Mossberg had been up early that morning, testing just such a hands-free device for his newspaper column – but more of that later.

Mossberg is the most widely read and trusted guide to the computers, mobile phones, BlackBerries and GPS systems that are everywhere in our lives. Two other characteristics mark him out: he writes clearly and he invariably takes the consumer's side. That's why he is reluctant to dump on those who like to drive and talk without a hands-free phone – though he concedes it is a dangerous habit.

Yet Mossberg is more than just a reviewer of expensive electronic toys – he is a futurologist of sorts, and his years of fooling around with gadgets have given him an unexpected authority in this area. "We're heading into a period in which the internet becomes a bit like the electricity grid," he says. ''In the old days you did not say, 'I'm going on the electrical grid to make some toast,' you just did it, and it will be the same for the internet, which will even be connected to your microwave oven and will read the temperature and time of cooking from a database via a Wi-Fi chip."

Silicon Valley moguls are in awe of Mossberg and clear their diaries to attend a technology conference he hosts. They also make pilgrimages to his office. It's situated on the eighth floor of a nondescript building a few blocks from George W Bush's White House. Next door is K Street, ground zero for America's vast and highly paid lobbying outfits. But it is Mossberg that the moguls want to see, not the president, the politicians or the PR firms. A couple of years ago Eric Schmidt, the head of Google, came to get Mossberg's opinion on what he thought of the world's biggest search engine. Mossberg often chats with Gates and has a relationship with Apple's Jobs that many online conspiracy theorists believe is a little too cosy; when these giants of the computer world have a product to launch, they want Mossberg to review it first, and don't mind flattering him with a personal visit. Jobs himself would presumably have been pretty pleased with Mossberg's recent verdict on the gadget of the season, Apple's iPhone: "Despite some flaws and feature omissions, the iPhone is, on balance, a beautiful and breakthrough hand-held computer."

But Mossberg, small and round with a grey goatee and bald pate, bristles at the suggestion that he might be influenced by such fawning attention. In fact, he routinely denounces what he sees as the rip-off tactics of the industry, especially when it comes to families.

Almost singlehandedly he has forced the computer manufacturers to make their products more user-friendly. Despite his friendship with Gates, he has been waging a one-man war on Microsoft's "bully-boy" behaviour for years. It started in July 2001, when he attacked the company for forcing families to buy separate copies of the XP software for every computer they own. Likewise with Microsoft's new Vista operating system, which he called "a worthy but largely unexciting product", because it was clunky and "hasn't been given nearly as radical an overhaul as Microsoft just applied to its other big product, Office".

When I speak to him, he is still fuming at the company's attitude. "After five years of work, this multibillion-dollar corporation releases Vista and you still have to buy a third-party security programme. They make the software for 90 per cent of the computers in the world but can't include the security to protect it from viruses and hackers? Come on!"

Mossberg's 16 years of campaigning to make technology more accessible has undoubtedly had an effect. "When ' I started to write about technology the typical computer did not have a modem or a sound card," he has said. "You had to go out, buy and somehow install these devices; they were anything but 'plug and play'. I believe that if I buy a digital camera or music player or printer I ought to be able to hook it up to the computer and use it straight out of the box. Nobody should have to load a CD.

"The computer should be there to serve the person, not the other way around. I'm against the whole notion of having to read the manual or take a training class. Why should people have to be IT experts? The device ought to do things for them. If I can't change the spark plugs on my car, why should I have to know how to install software?"

Six years ago, reviewing the first 10 years of his musings, he wrote: "Taken as a whole, consumer technologies have made startling advances, but they are still not as easy to use as they should be." Why do computers have an annoying spaghetti junction of wires hanging out the back rather than wireless connections to printers and keyboards, he asked. Earlier this year he attacked Sony and Toshiba for coming up with incompatible high-definition DVD formats, splitting the movie industry in the process. "It's like having to buy separate TV sets to watch different networks' shows."

Another hobbyhorse is the music industry's attitude towards copyright, which he thinks is overly restrictive. In 2000 he launched a tirade against Sony's less-than-successful digital player the Music Clip, saying it was "designed to satisfy lawyers obsessed with protecting the copyrights of the record labels – including Sony's own label – even at the expense of simplicity and convenience for consumers. It treats every user like a potential criminal and tries to impose new controls on music people paid for years ago."

Now, in the age of music downloads, he finds himself outraged at the way the music industry has ganged up on the little people who fall foul of the law. "Of course I am against genuine theft of other people's work, but we need laws that start from the consumer point of view. I don't agree with unlimited redistribution of other people's work, but I should not be criminalised for giving a copy of a song to my wife.

"The record industry has earned itself a place in the business school hall of fame on how not to react to a problem. They should be devoting their attention to shutting down the factories that produce bootleg songs instead of suing single mothers who are guilty of copying a handful of songs."

Mossberg may work for The Wall Street Journal, but he rejects the notion that he is catering to an exclusively well-heeled audience. He comes from a modest working-class New England background, went to a state school and protested against the Vietnam War. He began working for the Journal in 1970, covering the car industry in Detroit.

When the first Timex Sinclair computer arrived – the one that had to be hooked up to a black-and-white TV – he bought one. Then Radio Shack came out with a laptop powered by AA batteries that had a 2x10in LCD screen. It became the computer of choice for travelling journalists and when hooked up to Compuserve, enabled them to send stories electronically from around the world without having to dictate them over expensive international phone lines or send them by telex. As news editor of the Journal's Washington bureau, Mossberg gave a new computer to every reporter.

He later covered the Pentagon and then became the national security correspondent in 1989. This involved constantly travelling around the world with the then-US secretary of state James Baker. He was missing his children and in May 1991 he pitched the idea of a new column to Norman Pearlstine, the newspaper's managing editor. There was an immediate problem. The Journal had never had an opinion columnist on its news pages and was, and still is, famously resistant to change for change's sake. Furthermore, Mossberg had no interest in moving to Silicon Valley, the hub of the computer industry. "If I live and work among the industry, I will lose my focus as a consumer advocate," he wrote in a memo to Pearlstine. "If it works as I envision it, this column... would be the voice, the champion, of the individual actually faced with buying and using the core hi-tech devices – the customer whom industry calls the 'end user'."

He was hired, the column was launched and his impact was immediate. In 1992 he enthused about the simplicity of the start-up internet provider America Online, saying it was better than the much larger Compuserve. The result was a huge boost for AOL, which in a stunning act went on to buy Time magazine before it eventually came back down to earth.

It is common for the share prices of tech companies to soar or plummet on Thursday mornings, when Mossberg's column appears. But he scrupulously stays away from providing business advice and, under Wall Street Journal rules, is barred from owning any stock in the firms he writes about.

However, he is famously very well-paid, and according to a glowing profile in The New Yorker, he may be the most richly compensated print journalist in America. Mossberg hotly refutes it, but The New Yorker, with its legions of fact-checkers, said "his annual compensation approached a million dollars". "Only three people know how much I am paid," Mossberg tells me, "and Ken Auletta – the New Yorker writer – did not speak to any of them."

Whatever he is paid, it is just a fraction of the profits enjoyed by the manufacturers responsible for the gadgets Mossberg has supported. So, who's the next lucky recipient? That new hands-free phone he was testing at 7am happens to be called a Sync, which Ford is making available on even its cheapest cars. It costs $395 and integrates mobile phones and portable music players into cars. It could put an end to the days of drivers careening across motorways, one hand on the wheel, one to the ear – if Walt Mossberg gives it his approval, of course. *

Walt Mossberg on three of the best portable gadgets

Zune MP3 player

These new Zunes are notably better than last year's. They are smaller, lighter, more attractive and include three big improvements. First, is a new controller that combines buttons with a touch-pad for scrolling. Second, is a simpler PC-software program and online store. Third, is expanded usability of the built-in Wi-Fi, which lets you synchronise your Zune and PC without plugging in a cable

Nokia N95 phone

This device is the best combination of a camera and a phone I've ever tested, and includes a long list of other media features. The camera boasts five-megapixel resolution, highly unusual for a phone, and it takes marvellous photos. When I transferred my shots to my computer, they were large, sharp and vivid, as if they'd come from a standard camera. The N95 is for photo enthusiasts who want an all-in-one device

Q1 Ultra mobile PC

The Q1 Ultra from Samsung is a sleek, shiny, black tablet with a bright, sharp 7in screen that feels great in the hand and has a built-in stand on the back so it can be used upright. It's good for students and frequent business travellers who mainly want to take notes, write emails, do instant messaging and web surfing, and play music and videos