A Conversation with David Pogue

"Apple did something smart in the 1980s. They sold Macs to college students at half price, thereby getting them hooked for life."

by / April 27, 2007
The video clip on the New York Times Web site shows a man shoving a desktop PC and keyboard into a washing machine and, in the next scene, pulling out a handheld PC. It's David Pogue, columnist for the Times, making a point about some flaws in a new piece of hardware he's reviewing.
Pogue is not your typical technology reviewer. His sense of humor and his ability to explain in everyday language both the beauty and elegance of a well designed piece of technology, as well as the occasional glaring mistakes and shortcomings, has made him a hit online and in print, and a well read source for technology consumers all over the country. As the video reference attests, Pogue has mastered the new media, providing pithy and interesting technology reviews and comments in video, audio and blogs (the popular Pogue Posts).

In addition to his gig at the Times, Pogue is an Emmy award-winning technology correspondent for CBS News, and with 3 million books sold, he is also one of the world's bestselling how-to authors. He contributed eight books to the for Dummies series, on various topics such as Macs, magic, opera and classical music. In 1999, Pogue launched his own series of complete, funny computer books called the Missing Manual series, which now includes 30 titles.

On May 17, Pogue will deliver the keynote address at the GTC Conference in Sacramento, Calif. Pogue spoke with Tod Newcombe, editor of Government Technology's Public CIO, earlier this week.

Newcombe: What was your first computer?

Pogue: Apple did something smart in the 1980s. They sold Macs to college students at half price, thereby getting them hooked for life. So mine was a Mac 128k in 1985.

It was a really defining moment. I never had used a computer. I turned this thing on and got a blinking question mark on the screen, so I consulted the manual, and it said the first thing you need is to install the "applications." I had no idea what that was! I remember literally going through the Styrofoam [container] looking for these additional parts. I was that unfamiliar with the technology.

That was a very formative day in my life. If I, Yale senior, summa cum laude, can't understand this stuff, how do you expect the masses to?

Newcombe: Were you interested in gadgets or technology when growing up?

Pogue: No I wasn't. But what I always have been interested in is magic. I was always obsessed with Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, all the books where kids experienced magic; I have been a performing magician for birthday parties and school events, and I wrote Magic for Dummies. So really magic is my primary interest. I like the idea of making something happen without having to do it yourself. I think that's where the technology stuff comes in and where my emphasis on simplicity and elegance and effortlessness comes to play. It's my sublimated desire for magic in the world.

Newcombe: Do you still get "wowed" by technology today as you did back then?

Pogue: Yeah, I do! There's a lot of room for new creations that can amaze people. When I get that flash, I'm every bit as excited as before. It happened last week when I reviewed a new player that taps into Yahoo's music library of 2 million songs wirelessly. In principle, any song, any album, any time, flat monthly fee. No limits. They also have some 200 Internet radio stations and when you listen and hear a song at any time, with one click, you've downloaded the entire song or the entire album.

Now it turns out, it's not ready for primetime, so there are some problems they presumably will fix. But the first time I downloaded a song for free onto this player that I heard on the radio, I was like, 'Wow, this really changes things!'

Newcombe: Have IT vendors gotten better at how they design and sell technology to consumers?

Pogue: Probably. And often they are forced into doing a better job by the leading players, such as Apple, Tivo and Palm. When the iPod came along, it showed that people are willing to pay for technology that is a thing of beauty and simplicity. Design-centric companies have put a lot of pressure on other companies to clean up their act and start making things that look better. For example, look at the first BlackBerry and then look at the BlackBerry Pearl. It's absolutely gorgeous, inside and out; it's really been thought through.

Newcombe: Is Apple still king of technology when it comes to design and functionality? Are there any smaller, nimbler companies out there that can compete with Apple?

Pogue: I don't think they have slowed one iota. The iPhone demonstrates they are still at the cutting edge. The success of the iPod and now the Macintosh, which has picked up a few more market-share points in the last couple of years has given them these incredible financial as well as talent resources to keep their edge.

In other words, a smaller nimbler company could not have come up with the iPhone, because in order to get it down to the price it's at, required a huge order, it would have meant putting pressure on the Far East memory chip makers, filing 200 patents, it required enormous R&D [research and development] and legal resources. There's a certain point where it becomes self-fulfilling that only the company with the lead can maintain that lead.

I don't know if the iPhone will be a huge hit but it is certainly cutting-edge and represents a very radical rethinking of what a cell phone is. And I think it would be way too much for any smaller company to manage.

Newcombe: You have a strong interest in music. Has the iPod changed the way we relate to music, acquire it, listen to it?

Pogue: I think the iPod has, just as the Walkman did it for the generation before. And the digital nature of it opens up all kinds of other possibilities. I think the really neat experiment is the one Apple just announced, where they are going to start offering noncopyright-protected songs from their music store for 30 cents more. That's an incredible open-mindedness on the part of EMI, the record company that agreed to do that.

It flies squarely in the face of common wisdom of all the other record companies, which is that we're all a bunch of pirates out to destroy them by freely swapping files and the only way to stop is to copy-protect the songs to the hilt. Of course the fallacy in that is the only people inconvenienced by the copy-protection are the law-abiding ones. The pirates skip merrily on their way to Kazaa and don't buy stuff from the online music stores. So [copy-protection] never made sense.

My hunch is that the Apple-EMI agreement will be a tremendous success for all concerned. Yes, it will make life a little easier for the software pirates, but it will make life a lot easier for law-abiding citizens who will buy a lot more songs, because they can now do a lot more with them: play them on their Tivo, stream them wirelessly to their wireless stereo components and play them on other music players.

Newcombe: You're a taxpayer as well as someone who understands the capabilities of technology. Is there something you would like to see government doing with technology that would make your life better as a citizen?

Pogue: Most of my thinking concerns the FCC's very delicate job. I think they have actually done a very good job managing all the competing interests, keeping things relatively open, freeing up spectrum for new, interesting developments.

I think the greater concern is how to handle the Internet, which is and isn't the U.S. government's problem. Sometimes the lack of government understanding about the Internet is just mind-numbing. I don't mean elected officials referring to it as a series of tubes! But this idea of having a two-tiered packet distribution system where some customers get preferred Internet treatment over others -- that's alarming to me. Also, there's no convincing effort to address the spam problem; I think it's just a giant, giant problem.

One time I interviewed for CBS News the guy who proposed the "CAN-SPAM Act," which, by the way, is backed by the Direct Marketing Association -- exactly the wrong outfit to be getting in bed with. Anybody could see at the time it was a public relations move that would have zero effect. And sure enough, when that act was passed it did have zero effect. Seventy percent of e-mail was spam then, and now we're approaching 90 percent! So it had exactly the wrong effect!

There are some creative ideas emerging. For example, forcing people to be identified in their e-mail or charging a fraction of a cent [per e-mail]; there are some good ideas that I haven't seen any government interest in. Instead it's Microsoft and AOL and those guys who are working on them.

It's always a delicate line; it's all new territory. There's very little that's applicable to the old media. I don't wish I had that job! But somebody's got to do it and we can only hope that someone with the vision and the ability to predict the consequences will do it.
Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.