The Future of Product Reviews Looks a Lot Like the Golden Age of Product Reviews

The Wirecutter and This is My Next go back to the basics
From 2004, a PC World review of laptops crammed onto two magazine pages

From 2004, a PC World review of laptops crammed onto two magazine pages

It’s been a long time since my responsibilities as a tech journalist involved telling shoppers everything they needed to know about a specific product category. But during the thirteen-and-a-half years I worked at PC World magazine, giving that sort of advice was what kept us in business. So even today, I’m fascinated by the challenge it presents.

In recent years, the archetypal online review of a technology product–as seen at sites such as Engadget, The Verge, and Cnet–has been long, crammed with images and specs, and well worth diving into if you have a consuming interest in the subject at hand. But back in 2011, my friend Brian Lam, the former editor of Gizmodo, launched a site called The Wirecutter with a fundamentally contrarian approach: It aimed to help busy people save time by zeroing in on the best products in major categories.

What The Wirecutter leaves out–endless detail, especially on products which aren’t the best in their category–is as important as what it gives you. And it’s been a big hit, proving that not everyone wants to set aside the better part of an afternoon to research a product purchase.

This is My NextNow Brian’s site has competition from This is My Next, a new feature at The Verge named after the prototype site which predated The Verge itself.

Like The Wirecutter, This is My Next picks a product category and cuts to the chase. The first installment, which tackles smartphones, declares that the iPhone 5s is today’s best smartphone and HTC’s One M8 is the runner up. It provides brief reviews of them and even briefer capsules on ten other phones you might be considering, such as the iPhone 5c and Samsung’s Galaxy S5. It’s all on one easily-digestible page.

Over at TechCrunch, Matthew Panzarino has a good story on This is My Next and The Wirecutter; among other things, it includes a classy acknowledgement by The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky and David Pierce that The Wirecutter provided them with inspiration for their new feature.

As seen in both This is My Next and The Wirecutter, this less-is-more approach is a refreshing and inventive way to do product reviews. But it’s also a back-to-basics move. More than other online tech reviews, what these evaluations remind me of are the ones we used to do at PC World years ago–back when we were putting them on dead trees, and competed with other magazines doing much the same thing.

For years, the mainstays of PC World‘s approach to reviews were Top 10 and Top 5 roundups. We generally crammed them onto a page or two–in a magazine, editorial space is a precious commodity, and we had less and less of it as time went on. We’d name a Best Buy or two in each category, so people who wanted a single recommendation could skip the rest of the roundup. And we wrote for people who wanted to buy useful products to get stuff done, not obsessive gearheads.

In time, of course, PC World stopped being a magazine that had a website, and became a website that had a magazine. As we retooled our approach to reviews for the online-first era, we gave readers more and more and more. Reviews got longer, and we provided them for every product we tested, not just the best five or ten in a category. We provided more photography and user reviews and raw data based on the benchmarking we did in our Test Center, and let you sort reviews by various criteria.

It was great for folks who wanted to exhaustively research the field before making a purchase–or who just liked to read reviews of new products, whether or not they were in the market for anything. But we got so giddy over the web’s limitless space and infinite flexibility that we didn’t try to replicate the service we had offered in the print-centric era, when we let readers get in, get a bottom-line buying recommendation, and then get out.

These new reviews’ brevity reminds me of magazine stories, but they aren’t identical in approach to the ones we used to do at PC World. For one thing, we were maniacal about lab testing. We wanted to grind the subjectivity out of reviews in favor of repeatable objectivity, so that two laptops were subjected to the same consistent methodology even if different people tested them six months apart. And in retrospect, we had formidable resources to throw at our roundups–in 2003, we had around twenty people dedicated entirely to reviews and testing, not counting copy editors, designers, freelancers, and various high muckety-mucks involved in the process. We even wrote our own PC benchmark, WorldBench, because we didn’t want to be dependent on anybody else’s.

We were insufficiently grateful for what we had: The staff had once been even biggest, and even at its most enormous, it was smaller than PC Magazine‘s crew. But nobody, including today’s, does all the things we did back then.

Compared to the old PC World, both The Wirecutter and This is My Next are more comfortable trusting the instincts and opinions of human beings who really know the product categories they cover. (We sometimes had to reconcile weird scenarios in which the opinions of the editors–the ones they would share with friends who asked for buying advice–were at odds with what our lab testing told us.) The Wirecutter also takes into account the advice of writers for other sites–it interviewed Macworld’s Dan Frakes for a review of iPad keyboards–and published reviews at other sites. It’s as if the PC World reviews of a decade or two ago had been based in part on what PC Magazine had to say…a concept which would have short-circuited my brain at the time, but sounds downright sensible now.

I’d never maintain that the technology journalism we did back in the day was anywhere near ideal; in so many respects, the web is a far better medium for learning about tech products than any magazine could ever be. But when the print era went away, we lost something–the sort of to-the-point something which is back in The Wirecutter and This is My Next, and at least as appealing as it ever was.


One comment

With the Galaxy Tab S, Samsung Does Everything in Its Power to Build a Great Android Tablet

...but only Google can fix its weakest point.
Samsung's Ryan Bidan presides over the Galaxy Tab S launch event at Madison Square Garden in New York City on June 12, 2014

Samsung’s Ryan Bidan presides over the Galaxy Tab S launch event at Madison Square Garden in New York City on June 12, 2014

There are several different ways that a hardware maker can try to build a tablet that’s better than the model which defined the category and continues to lead it, Apple’s iPad. It can make one which is a lot cheaper, or a lot different. Or can build something that’s conceptually similar to the iPad, but attempt to make it better.

Samsung being Samsung, it’s tried all of these approaches with its Android tablets. And the Galaxy Tab S, which it announced at an event I attended at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, is that last sort of tablet: one which attempts to beat the iPad at its own game.

Starting in July, it’ll be available in two screen sizes, 10.5″ and 8.4″, which will start at the same prices as the 9.7″ iPad Air and 7.9″ iPad Mini With Retina Display–$499 and $399, respectively. That’s with Wi-Fi; versions which also pack LTE wireless broadband will arrive at a later date.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S

The 10.5″ Samsung Galaxy Tab S

From an industrial-design standpoint, both Galaxy Tab S models have the same bedimpled plastic back as the the Galaxy S5 phone, in two color choices: white or bronze. By almost anybody’s standards, that isn’t as classy as the iPad’s aluminum chassis. But these new Samsungs are pleasing tablets to hold and use: They weigh about the same as their iPad equivalents even though they have bigger screens, which makes them among the lightest tablets on the market. And at about .29″ thick, they’re even thinner than iPads.

The Galaxy Tab S’s most notable feature–and its most striking selling point compared to the iPad–is its display. Instead of an LCD, both versions of the tablet sport Super AMOLED screens, a familiar technology on phones such as the Galaxy S5 but a rarity on tablets. The resolution is 2560-by-1600 at an aspect ratio of 16:9; these are the highest-resolution, largest-screen AMOLED tablets to date.

Samsung spent much of its presentation going over the virtues of Super AMOLED as the company has implemented it: vivid colors; a broader color gamut than LCD, resulting in greater color accuracy; better legibility in sunlight; and adaptive technology which dynamically tweaks the image for the lighting environment and for text, still images, photos, and other content types, even if more than one of them is on screen at a time.

I got to spend some up-close time with Galaxy Tab S units after the presentation, and the screen did look awfully good; as usual with Super AMOLED, the colors were so rich that if anything, I worried about the possibility of them being unrealistically intense. But it’s not tough at all to imagine someone comparing the Galaxy Tab S screens to those on the current iPads and preferring Samsung.

Both Galaxy Tab S models have one other significant hardware feature not available in any current iPad: a home button which doubles as a fingerprint scanner. Among other things, they use it to unlock privacy and multiuser modes which Samsung has added to Android’s stock functionality. I hope it works better than the scanner on the Galaxy S5, which is nowhere near as elegant as the iPhone 5s’s TouchID.

Neither Galaxy Tab S is an iPad-slaughtering Great Leap Forward, but they’re both really nice pieces of hardware. Which brings up the aspect of these tablets which Samsung has the least control over: software and services.

As usual, the company hasn’t been shy about reworking aspects of Android and slathering on its own features. The Tab S models can display two apps on screen at once. Scratching the same general itch as the Continuity features which Apple announced last week at WWDC, they have SideSync 3.0, which lets you use Wi-Fi to project a Galaxy S5’s screen onto the tablet’s display, make and receive calls, and transfer files back and forth; and a similar feature for tablet-PC integration called Remote PC.

Samsung also isn’t satisfied to offer Google’s content stores on its tablets and leave it at that. It has its own music service, Milk, which is powered by Slacker. And it’s introducing Pagegarden, a magazine store which offers interactive titles from publishers such as Conde Nast and National Geographic, customized for the Galaxy Tab S display.

Modifications and additions such as these are dangerous; even if they’re useful, as some of Samsung’s tweaks appear to be, they introduce the risk of bloat and inconsistency. But the thing is, no matter how capably Samsung customizes Android, it can’t do anything about the most glaring weak spot of any competent Android tablet: the paucity of third-party apps designed to work well on a tablet.

I happen to think that iOS has won the mobile app wars, but the selection of apps for Android smartphones, even if it’s in second place, is more than good enough. That’s not true for tablets: More than three years after Google first got serious about tablets with Android 3.0 Honeycomb, it’s not even in the league next door to the league inhabited by the iPad, which now has more than a half-million apps designed especially for it.

Samsung, of course, would never concede that. Still, I got the sense that the company understands it’s an issue. Its presentation on Thursday night emphasized that web browsing has long been the most popular tablet application, but that video has surged into a virtual tie for first place. For browsing the web and watching videos, both Galaxy Tab S models do look like they’d be outstanding.

But because of its massive third-party app advantage, the iPad retains a formidable advantage as an overall experience, over the Galaxy Tab S and every other Android model.

There’s never been any evidence that Google sees this situation as a crisis which demands an ambitious, ongoing response on its part. Too bad for Samsung; too bad for Android fans; too bad for the general state of tablet competition.


My First Six Questions About Amazon’s New Prime Music Service

Amazon Prime Music

After months of rumors, Amazon has rolled out its Prime Music service. As expected, it bundles music with the company’s Amazon Prime service, which now costs $99 a year for new members. And as expected, there are some gotchas.

Prime Music is launching with over a million songs; Spotify, by contrast, has over 20 million, and even that has selection has its holes. Prime doesn’t include current hits. It also doesn’t have anything from Universal Music Group, which owns more music than anyone else.

I’ve been fiddling around with the new service this morning, and it hasn’t gone that well: On my iPad, the new version of Amazon’s music app for iOS is unusably slow and keeps crashing. (The web version of the service works fine.) But that isn’t stopping me from asking questions about it:

1. Is a million songs a lot, or hardly any? Amazon’s own Prime Video and Netflix show us that a movie service can be a keeper even if there are far more things that it doesn’t have than ones which it does. But there does need to be a critical mass of stuff worth caring about.

For me, the lack of current hits is a non-issue: Most of the music I listen to is forty, fifty, or sixty years old. So I wondered whether the service might seem complete to me, or at least substantial.

During my early rummaging around in the Prime collection, however, the pickings still come off as slim. The results for Bob Dylan look great, but much of the time, when I searched for an artist or group I got one or two major albums and a bunch of chaff such as “tributes” and karaoke versions.

I got excited about the 32 albums which came up for “Frank Sinatra” until I saw they included one real Sinatra album (In the Wee Small Hours), three sketchy-looking compilations of his early work as a band singer, and 29 things along the lines of this:

Prime Music Sinatra

Besides albums, Prime Music offers hundreds of playlists, which seem to benefit from less restrictive licensing. For example, there are no Monkees albums, but a playlist called “The Monkees’ Top Songs” does indeed have 19 of the ones you’re most likely to look for.

2. Is there a place for Amazon Prime given the profusion of free music which is already available? Amazon Prime Video and Netflix make sense in part because they’re offering content which is generally unavailable for free elsewhere (at least legally). But both Spotify and Rdio now offer free versions with way more than a million tracks. They’ve got their own catches: Spotify only lets you listen to music on mobile devices in shuffle mode, and Rdio isn’t free on mobile devices at all. But I still suspect I’d be inclined to go to a service with a far higher chance of having the music I want than Prime Music currently does.

3. Does not having anything from Universal Music Group destroy the service, or merely cripple it? Strangely enough, most of us don’t pay close attention to which enormous corporation controls the work of our favorite performers. So it’s tough to say how much the absence of all this music will hobble Prime for any particular listener. Wikipedia has a helpful list of Universal’s artists, from A (ABBA) to Z (Zucchero).

4. Would anyone cancel a paid account to Spotify or Rdio because this exists? Seems highly unlikely to me.

5. Is it reasonable to say it’s FREE? Amazon is billing Prime Music as being “FREE with Amazon Prime.” I’m not sure how something that involves a $99 yearly fee qualifies as being free. Especially since Amazon recently raised the price of Prime membership, which presumably makes it easier for the company to add inducements such as, um, free music.

6. Will Prime Music get great? Right now, I can’t imagine that anyone will regard this music service as anything other than a pleasant bonus for Prime subscribers, in a category already crowded with excellent options. But Prime Video started out with only a smattering of content, and has grown into an attractive Netflix alternative. Given time, Prime Music might blossom–especially if Amazon and Universal hammer out a deal, and especially if the service expands to include at least some semi-current hits.

Those are all the questions I have right now. If you have opinions on them–or on Prime Music in general–I’d love to hear them.


Honeywell’s New Lyric Smart Thermostat Aims to Beat Nest at Its Own Game

Honeywell Lyric thermostatWhen Nest, a startup co-founded by former iPod honcho Tony Fadell, announced its classy, web-enabled, touch-screen thermostat back in the fall of 2011, you just knew that Honeywell–long the biggest name in thermostats–would have to respond.

It did. First, it sued Nest, saying that the company’s design violated Honeywell patents. And then it came out with some models which felt like they split the difference between what Nest was doing and earlier Honeywell high-tech efforts–in one case offering voice control as a differentiating factor.

Now Honeywell is back with the Lyric, a $279 thermostat which is available now through professional installers and will arrive at Lowes stores in August. (Nest, which is now part of Google, sells its thermostat for $249.)

Like the Nest–and unlike Honeywell’s previous web-savvy thermostats, which were rectangular and utilitarian–the Lyric is round and stylish, with a circular LCD display in its center. The look isn’t identical to the Nest, but it’s very, very similar; perhaps to refute any impressions that it’s shamelessly ripping off its rival, Honeywell points out on the Lyric’s packaging that it’s been manufacturing an iconic round thermostat since the 1950s.

The Nest thermostat

The Nest thermostat

It’s not just the shape of the Lyric which is Nest-esque. Judging from a demo Honeywell recently gave me, the new model has more of the polished, consumer-electronics feel which made the Nest so strikingly different from Honeywell’s past efforts. Even more than the Nest, it looks like a snow-white iPod reborn as a piece of tastefully minimalist household instrumentation. (LEDs give it a colored “halo” of light with an informational purpose: orange means it’s heating, blue means it’s cooling, and green means it’s conserving energy.)

Functionality-wise, the Lyric aims to distinguish itself from the Nest without resorting to gimmicks such as voice commands. One of the key differences is how the thermostat keeps tabs on your family’s whereabouts, so it can set the temperature to your liking when you’re at home, and focus on energy savings when you’re not. The Nest does that using a motion sensor which detects when people are in the vicinity, learning about your schedule over time.

Honeywell Lyric app

The Lyric app

The Lyric has a motion sensor, too–one which it uses to put itself into an interactive mode when it notices you’ve approached. But for monitoring whether you’re at home at all, Honeywell’s thermostat leverages its iOS and Android apps. Your phone tracks your location via GPS and reports it back to the thermostat, so the Lyric knows if you’re around the house or at a distant location. And if it notices that you’re headed home, it can begin to adjust itself so that the temperature is ideal by the time you arrive.

Honeywell says that this approach is superior to Nest’s learning-through-motion-detection technique because it doesn’t involve guesswork: The Lyric knows where you are even if you aren’t following your normal routine. It sounds logical, as long as everyone in the family has an iPhone or Android handset. (Alternatively, you can, of course, simply use the Lyric like a conventional thermostat, adjusting it yourself once you get home or on a schedule.)

The Lyric has some other advantages over the Nest, according to Honeywell. For instance, it uses an algorithm to fine-tune the temperature based on multiple factors, such as the humidity inside and outside the house, which Honeywell says results in a 72° that really feels like 72°. It also uses its apps to alert you to matters such as the need to change an air filter.

And in a move which strikes me as particularly clever, it ditches a traditional installation manual in favor of stepping you through its do-it-yourself setup process using your smartphone–even using the phone’s camera to let you snap a picture of the wiring for later reference.

Honeywell Round

Honeywell’s original, iconic round thermostat

If there’s an alternate universe out there where Nest was never founded, it seems unlikely that Honeywell would have invented anything which much resembled the Lyric. Tony Fadell and his team redefined a sleepy category, and the Lyric responds to the Nest both by being similar and attempting to outdo it.

But even if the Lyric is reactionary rather than revolutionary, it seems to be a credible product. Honeywell says that it’s the first in a new generation of smart-home devices which the company will deliver, all of which will be controllable by one unified app. That’s a far more inspiring way to respond to the challenge presented by Nest than by engaging in interminable patent warfare.


Our Impression of How Apple is Doing is a Lagging Indicator of How Apple is Doing

Apple software honcho Craig Federighi cheerfully waves to the WWDC audience as he takes the stage in San Francisco on June 2, 2014

Apple software honcho Craig Federighi jauntily waves to the WWDC audience as he takes the stage in San Francisco on June 2, 2014

Lots of people–journalists, bloggers, analysts, random bystanders–love to to make grand pronouncements on where Apple is going. Very few are good at it. And part of the problem is that it isn’t even all that easy to understand the state of Apple right this very minute.

I’ve been thinking about that as I ‘ve read coverage of the news which the company has made over the last couple of weeks–which has included its acquisition of Beats and a WWDC keynote which, while devoid of new hardware, was bursting at the seams with wildly ambitious plans for software and services. Apple as of mid-June of 2014 is interesting in ways which I don’t think anyone was predicting even in late April, before the Beats scuttlebutt emerged and it became clear that WWDC wasn’t going to involve major hardware announcements.

Which means that even the best commentary on recent Apple developments–such as Joshua Topolsky’s “Meet the New Apple“–is playing catch-up with developments which Apple has been secretly working on for months or, in some cases, years. (The new Swift programming language began as a personal project in 2010.)

Topolsky’s piece is full of words which very few observers would have applied to Apple even the week before WWDC: fun confidence, buoyant, giddy and even open. If it’s reasonable to apply them to the company now–and I believe that it is–it’s not because  a switch flipped at the WDDC keynote. It’s because Apple was already changing in ways we didn’t yet understand.

Of course, the same basic dynamic is an issue with nearly all analysis of almost every company: When Google holds its IO conference later this month, it’s entirely possible that it will reveal something which will render some of our current impressions of the company obsolete.

But perception lagging reality is a bigger factor with Apple than with most companies, for several reasons:

  • Apple really is going through a big, unpredictable shift, not just because Tim Cook isn’t Steve Jobs but because he has a new team. (As Ben Thompson of Stratechery points out, nearly 60 percent of the company’s current top managers weren’t in their jobs in 2010.)
  • Apple spends less time talking about its future–even in broad strokes–than most companies, which sometimes leaves those of us on the outside blissfully ignorant of where it’s headed until it’s well on its way to getting there.
  • People tend to have deeply-held attitudes toward Apple–be they positive or negative–which they have trouble putting aside even when the facts suggest such attitudes may need reassessing.

I don’t mean any of this as a knock on Apple commentators. (At least the smartest ones, a group which certainly includes Topolsky and Thompson.) There’s no shame in only being able to articulate things about a company once the evidence is in.

Actually, that’s a far better way to shed light on Apple than the blustery predictions which so often pass for analysis–and which, to the extent they’re taken seriously, mostly serve to damage the world’s understanding of Apple rather than increase it.

Be the first to comment

The Turing Test Has Finally Been Passed, and I’m Not Impressed

goostmanI swear I’m not trying to be a wet blanket. But I’m reading lots of giddy reaction to the news that a chatbot is the first software to pass the Turing Test–the notion, first proposed by legendary mathematician Alan Turing in 1950, which posits that computers will have achieved intelligence when one of them is capable of convincing humans that it’s a real person. And I’m not convinced that what just happened is a defining moment for either computers or humans.

Traditionally, a computer will have passed the Turing Test when it fools 30 percent of the judges who converse with it into thinking it’s human. The chatbot in question was devised by Vladimir Veselov, a Russian living in the U.S., and Eugene Demchenko, a Ukrainian living in Russia. It duped 33 percent of the judges of a contest held by the University of Reading in the UK into thinking that it was man rather than machine.

Or, to be more precise, that it was boy rather than machine–a 13-year-old Ukrainian kid named Eugene Goostman. The creators of the chatbot, which has been around since 2001, dramatically simplified the challenge they were tackling by building software which posed as a youngster who isn’t entirely proficient in English.

I haven’t seen any transcripts of the conversations which convinced the judges that Eugene was flesh and blood. But RT Today published an “interview” with Eugene. If this is as good as the chatbot’s artificial intelligence gets, I’m not astounded. And if I’d been a judge, I can’t imagine that I would have been snookered.

A sample:

RT: Do you work?

EG: I am only 13, so I’m attending school so far.

RT: What do you study?

EG: Is it “the third degree”? I’m not going to answer such a provocative question!

RT: Do you like science?

EG: I wouldn’t want to be a scientist – in science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs. So that, science is unfair thing a-priori.

RT: Do you have any heroes?

EG: No, I haven’t any heroes! How could you imagine such a trash! Wonna ask me something more?

Even if you don’t expect a Ukrainian teenager speaking in English to be the most dazzling of conversationalists, this comes off as laughably crude and synthetic. It seems to deflect questions it can’t parse by refusing to answer them or shiftily parroting back a snippet–just like the Eliza programs I wrote in BASIC on a TRS-80 computer when I was in high-school.

So I wonder: If this is the first software to pass the Turing Test, is it possible that the victory had less to do with Eugene being a brilliant work of computer science–and more to do with some of the human judges in this particular competition being a bit thick-witted?


At Last, Apple’s Wearable Enters the “Yes, It’s Coming Soon” Phase


Exclusive Technologizer visualization of likely appearance of Apple wearable device

At first, people idly wonder whether Apple might enter an emerging category of gadgets. Then there are rumors that the company is entering the category–but they come from sources without a great track record for accuracy, or involve alleged facts which don’t ring true.

And then at some point someone trustworthy reports that the new Apple product really is on its way within the forseeable future. That’s when it’s reasonable to assume that it’s not a mass hallucination or a hoax.

The cycle happened with the iPhone and iPad. And now it’s happened with the wearable gizmo that everybody calls the iWatch.

John Paczkowski of Re/code, who’s on my exceedingly short list of reporters whose Apple scuttlebutt I reflexively believe to be true, says that Apple is planning to ship a wearable device in October. He doesn’t have a lot of detail beyond that, but does say–although it scarcely needs saying–that said device will hook into the HealthKit fitness platform which Apple announced during its WWDC keynote.

Yuichiro Kanematsu of Nikkei Asian Review is also reporting that the wearable will arrive in October, and provides some more color–although as is often the case with stories about unannounced Apple products, it isn’t always clear where the reporting stops and the speculation starts:

Though the details of services have yet to be released, specs for the new product are being finalized, according to industry sources. It will likely use a curved organic light-emitting diode (OLED) touchscreen and collect health-related data, such as calorie consumption, sleep activity, blood glucose and blood oxygen levels. It will also allow users to read messages sent by smartphones.

Apple appears confident of the new product. According to a parts manufacturer, it plans monthly commercial output of about 3-5 million units, which exceeds the total global sales of watch-like devices last year.

I’m not convinced that everything in Kanematsu’s piece is automatically accurate. For instance, that “likely” gives me pause, in part because it’s not clear whether it’s Kanematsu’s sources who are deeming the tidbits that follow to be probable, or whether it’s Kanematsu’s own guess. And it isn’t even clear which of the tidbits the “likely” applies to.

I am, however, officially assuming henceforth that Apple plans to unveil a wearable device this fall. Almost everything about the product remains mysterious, but even just feeling confident that it’s fact rather than fantasy is a big deal.

One comment

The Ghostbusters Polaroids

Four instant pieces of movie-making history

Ghostbusters logoAny interesting photograph is more interesting still–or at least far more evocative of a particular era–if it happens to be a Polaroid.

That’s my deeply-held belief, anyhow–which is why I’ve blogged in the past about Polaroid images of John F. Kennedy and the Apple-1 computer. (I also told the story of Polaroid’s SX-70 camera in the longest article I’ve ever written about anything.)

And now my Facebook friend Michael Gross–who made the world a much better place as the art director of National Lampoon in its golden age and then as a movie producer–has used his feed to share some vintage Polaroids taken on the set of Ghostbusters, on which he worked as an associate producer. (Among other things, he contributed the movie’s unforgettable logo.)

Michael was nice enough to let me borrow his Facebook photo of the Polaroid photos, which show stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Rick Moranis, and Ernie Hudson. Here they are:

Ghostbusters Polaroids

All four snapshots are great, but the one of Murray–well, it may be one of the best photos of Bill Murray I’ve ever seen. Which is saying a lot.

Ghostbusters was released thirty years ago last Sunday; back when it was made, a Polaroid camera was an utterly indispensable tool for moviemakers who needed to document their work as it was going on. (Michael says these particular pictures were continuity shots for the wardrobe department.) Even if many of them didn’t get saved, there must be an awful lot of Hollywood Polaroids which survive. Wouldn’t they make an incredible coffee-table book?

Be the first to comment

Where Have You Gone, Peter Norton?

The man who made PC utilities famous--and vice versa

Recently on Facebook, my friend, nerd extraordinaire Esther Schindler, shared a photograph of herself wearing an old T-shirt and challenged her followers to identify it:

Esther Schindler

Either you have no idea what that image means, or you know exactly what it is.

It’s the torso, rolled-up sleeves and folded arms of Peter Norton, the man who was once synonymous with PC utility software, on a vintage shirt produced to promote one of his products. I found seeing him again–even without his own head–to be a surprisingly Proustian experience.

Norton was a mainframe and minicomputer programmer who bought an IBM PC soon after its 1981 release and published an enormously successful suite of software tools, the Norton Utilities, in 1982. Its killer app: UnErase, which could recover lost files back before trashcan-style deletion let you change your mind after getting rid of a file.

Norton’s empire grew to include multiple software products, articles (including a long-running PC Magazine column), and books. He was everywhere that PCs were. And then, in 1990, he sold Peter Norton Computing to Symantec, which made the Norton line of software even more successful.

After the sale, Peter Norton himself retained a high profile as a living symbol of PC maintenance; his personal brand was so powerful that it transcended his actual involvement in products which bore his name. (In the 1990s, a friend of mine wrote a book with Norton: By then, I gathered, writing a book with Peter Norton involved…well, pretty much writing a book.)

And all along, that image of a thoughtful-looking computer nerd with crossed arms was instantly recognizable. Here it is in an early incarnation, on a best-selling 1985 tome which Wikipedia informs me was known as the “pink shirt book.”

Peter Norton

Both the formality of the necktie and the rolled-up sleeves of the classic Norton pose are meaningful. He was a pro, but he was also ready to get to work on whatever ailed your computer.

Here, on a Norton manual cover, is the folded-arm Norton as he’s remained burned into my brain all these years. (I’d forgotten that he didn’t wear glasses all along, at least when posing for photographs: Once he did, it added to his authoritative air.)


And here, in an image which I find vaguely unsettling, is a folded-arm, pink-shirt Norton in a very early (1991) ad for Norton AntiVirus, which eventually became the best-known Norton-branded product:

Peter Norton

Esther, who seems to have done a better job of holding onto interesting computer-industry tchotchkes than I have, still has her Peter Norton Mug:

Peter Norton Mug

As the image below, which I borrowed from this blog post, shows, cross-armed Norton was not only iconic, but also a computer icon. (Don’t hold me to this, but I could swear that at least one version of the Norton Utilities sported an interface featuring an animated version of Peter.)

Peter Norton

I started using MS-DOS PCs on a regular basis in 1991, and that’s when I became a user of Norton software. I was particularly fond of Disk Doctor, which repaired corrupted hard drives; and Disk Editor,  which let you view and edit the data on your disk byte-by-byte. I used both of them more than once to recover from disaster, back when hard disks crashed a lot more often than they do today. I also swore by NCACHE and Speed Disk, two utilities which were superior to their Microsoft equivalents.

No disrespect meant to later, Windows-based Norton products–they’ve rescued my computer on more than one occasion–but for me, the golden age of Peter Norton’s software was when it was mostly DOS-based, lightning fast, and let you dig deeply into your computer. When Norton software switched to Windows, along with the entire utility industry, it got more bloated and tended to go after a larger, more consumery, less nerdy audience. It had less to do with the programs which Peter Norton himself had begun writing in the early 1980s. It felt less real.

Still, even in the Windows age, the crossed-arm Norton was so famous that I remembered it as appearing on all his software products and books.

Not so. Poking around the Web, I found images of him just sort of standing there (in a pink shirt), leaning on computers, hanging out with co-authors, brandishing toolboxes and hourglasses, wearing a stethoscope, and performing magic tricks with gears. And, on one particularly entertaining package, garbed in a garage-style uniform with a “Peter” label, working on a humongous floppy disk jacked up in the air.

Norton Boxes

That bottom row shows boxes dating from the turn of the century, when Symantec doubled down on Peter Norton imagery–right before it permanently removed the man altogether from product packaging in 2001. It was the end of an era, even though I’m not sure if anyone noticed at the time.

Why did Norton products no longer carry pictures of their founder? I don’t know. Maybe Symantec did extensive market testing before it made the move; maybe not.

But these later-era packages, with photos of happy, confident computer users rather than a problem-solving computer geek, hint at the company’s thinking.


I don’t care what the rationale was: Depicting someone other than Peter Norton on a Norton box was like Planters decorating a can of nuts with an anthropomorphic legume who wasn’t Mr. Peanut.

Today, Norton is probably still the best-known name in utility software; it’s even used on products for iOS and Android. But Symantec has completely disassociated the brand from Peter. Just as nobody remembers anything about Duncan Hines other than that he licensed his name to a cake-mix company, it’s possible–maybe even dead certain–that most people who use Norton products don’t have a clue who Peter Norton is.

Here’s the current Norton Utilities package, which seems particularly interested in reminding us that Symantec is the company behind Norton:

Norton Utiltiies

I’m glad that the Norton Utilities still exist–they even include modern versions of some of the programs I once loved, such as Disk Doctor. But so much has changed about PCs that it’s tough to remember how essential early versions of the package were. Creating a really good data-recovery program is not the road to fame and riches that it was in the 1980s.

Of course, an awful lot of people who buy Norton products these days never see a box at all. Shrinkwrapped software of the sort which once brought Peter Norton glory is largely a thing of the past; Symantec has migrated much of its line to a downloadable, subscription-based model.

Bottom line: If there’s a young Peter Norton out there today, he’s not going to become famous by appearing on utility-software boxes sold in retail stores.

As for Peter Norton himself, he may have been synonymous with PC utilities, but they weren’t his sole obsession. After selling Peter Norton Computing to Symantec, he went on to spend a sizable chunk of his loot on philanthropy and collecting modern art, two entirely admirable pursuits. I met him a few years ago when we were on a panel together, had a pleasant chat, and got the sense that he was perfectly happy not to be the guy on the software box anymore.

And yes, meeting Peter Norton did feel a little like encountering Betty Crocker or Mr. Clean in person. I hope I had the presence of mind to thank him for all the times he saved my bacon…


Kickstarter is Loosening Up. Let’s Hope It Still Feels Like Kickstarter

KickstarterBack in 2012, I wrote a feature about Kickstarter–the site which kickstarted the crowdfunding phenomenon–for TIME. (Here the article is, lurking behind a paywall.)

One of the things I found fascinating as I reported the story was that Kickstarter’s founders–Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler, and Charles Adler–weren’t in love with the site’s public image, which at the time had a lot to do with the giant sums of money raised by gadget-y projects such as the Pebble smartwatch and Ouya game console.

For its founders, Kickstarter was about finding funding for creative endeavors–the more creative the better, and regardless of whether the endeavor in question required a lot of money or just a little. When they told me about its success stories they brought up small-time, deeply personal stuff like games and artisanal jam, not Pebble or Ouya. And they didn’t like people thinking of their creation as an online marketplace or a new-age form of venture capital for consumer electronics. (In fact, later that year, they tightened their rules to discourage some campaigns and announced the restrictions with a blog post titled “Kickstarter is Not a Store.”)

Fast forward to today. The site is announcing that it’s loosening up its guidelines for project creators, eliminating many of the restrictions on what a crowdfunding campaign can involve–though there are still bans on such items as weapons, medical products, pornography, hate speech, charity requests, and–go figure!–anything that’s illegal. Creators will also be able to launch campaigns without having them pre-approved by the site, a measure which will presumably help it ramp up the volume of projects. (For all of Kickstarter’s influence, it still operates on a relatively small scale by web standards–there have been a total of around 63,000 successfully funded campaigns in its first five years.)

Over at The Verge, Adrianne Jeffries has a good story on the changes. They still leave Kickstarter with a more narrowly-defined mission than its older archrival, Indiegogo; as far as I can tell, that site doesn’t explicitly ban medical products, porn, or charity campaigns, for instance. That has led to some odd undertakings over there, including a campaign for a wristband which can allegedly monitor your calorie intake, the subject of an excellent investigation by Pando Daily’s James Robinson.

Still, the new Kickstarter will embrace people beyond the “artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, inventors [and] explorers” who it originally said it was designed to serve. And I confess to being a little nervous about the transition.

I came away from my time with the company’s creators impressed by the clarity of their vision, and their willingness to err on the side of preserving it. It was a very different story than you usually hear from the founders of venture-backed startups, who are usually under intense pressure to get as big as possible as fast as possible.

Then again, the logic of why some Kickstarter campaigns were kosher and others weren’t was always fuzzy. In the past, underwear was welcome but bath products were forbidden; social-networking software was fine but an actual social network was not. My guess is that the revised rules will simply allow a bunch of efforts which everybody (mistakenly) assumed were legit all along, and therefore won’t radically change the game.

Or so I hope. The best Kickstarter projects have always been quirky and creative–a fact which surely has something to do with the quirky, creative nature of the site itself. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it emerges from these changes still recognizable as its idiosyncratic, lovable self.

UPDATE: Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler responded to my fretting with an encouraging tweet:

One comment