Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Editors Need to Control Even Their Contributors

Well, well. The very thing I like most about Mozilla, its security, is according to a Jupiter Research dude writing for ComputerWorld (here:,10801,99142,00.html)
its biggest problem.

I've been using Firefox myself for ages, having finally swapped from Netscape and being a long-time IE refusenik.

However, that's the home persona. At various offices, I've had to live with IE because of IT departments which (quite correctly) run "no downloads" policies.

The central premise of the Jupiter article is that you can't use the browser as the access point to other applications if you can't run ActiveX controls (or more likely, if you've spent a bucket on developing your own in-house ActiveX controls, you don't want to have to replace them).

Well, it's about time enterprises had to rethink the "browser for everything" attitude.

The only reason people en masse made Port 80 the default for application access was convenience: if you wrote a proper client to access applications, you had to put in the work; and moreover, the proper client might need its own path through the firewall. Instead, people were stupidly encouraged to make Port 80 carry everything - ensuring that it's well-nigh impossible to secure Port 80.

Microsoft was the cheerleader in this (well, Microsoft and a bunch of journalists and analysts who don't put "is it secure" at the top of their quiz-list).

Firefox (which had the author done some research can run ActiveX via a plug-in) is more secure because it gives users more fine-grained control over what the browser can and cannot do; security at the cost of convenience. A good thing.

So much for the technical thumbnail. What really interested me was the undeclared authorial interest in promoting Microsoft.

Check this URL:

You get the picture? The author's expertise is telling Jupiter's customers how to align themselves with the Microsoft vision. "Jupiter's Microsoft Monitor Research Service helps vendors prepare for market opportunities created by new Microsoft initiatives."

When I posted about a Vunet story a couple of days ago, I wrote about access - if you can't get access in a media-managed spin-doctored world, you'll never get the scoop. And even if the scoop is a staged interview, that word "exclusive" is still good for the eyeballs.

Well, the same is true for an analyst - even more so, because access is one of the foundation stones of the analyst's billable hours.

Is an analyst depending on access Microsoft's plans and futures going to write in favour of
Firefox? Not on your nelly - even if the premise, that ActiveX is Good for Everyone, is so silly as to inspire laughter all the world over.

So the analyst wrote a column, and the interest was there for all to see with just a little Googling.

The astonishing lapse is on behalf of ComputerWorld in the US.

Here's a secret: an editor can always take a contributed article and throw it back at the author. I know this, because I've done it myself; and some of the editors I've worked with are the misery of any contributor who tries to please them.

To let twaddle like this article, thinly argued on a shaky premise, through without anything but correcting the spelling and punctuation, is an inexcusable lapse of judgement.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Devaluing News with Google

Ever since its launch, a mythology has grown up around Google News based on the way it's been hyped by people who ought to know better. The hype covers a couple of misconceptions which are driving a fairly complete mythology about Google News, most recently in my eyes seen in a short video published here:

The misconceptions undermine not just the popular understanding of news, but help create a world in which information is dramatically devalued.

I'm not going to try and trace the history of the myths; instead, merely for simplicity, I'm going to draw them completely from the "Epic" video and keep things moving along.

Myth: "Google News is edited entirely by computer".

Reality: "Entirely by computer" is a misconception. The choice of sources trawled by Google is made by people, and they're starting to suffer under the overload of competing sources. They are trying to create rules to assign "validity" to source, some of which are stupid and arbitrary, and these "validity" decisions are not made "entirely by computer".

As a result, the observant can already see a deterioration in the quality of Google News, at least in three directions:

* syndication is a kind of "keyword spam" in which a press release, picked up automatically by Website fillers, becomes the dominant angle on a story. This is a serious problem, because the author of the press release - almost never an objective source - can skew the Google News view of the world;

* the savvy or cynical can already "game" the Google News system, I don't know how; but when The Inquirer (for example) can't get Google News listing but FAQs for games are treated as news, there's a problem; and

* the Google News decisions, such as they are, are arbitrary and opaque. One news source I know was delisted by Google News merely because it relocated its host; there is no avenue for approach or appeal, no editor, and no access to the decision-maker.

The other reality associated with the above myth is that Google News is not edited at all. It's not edited by people, it's not edited by computer; and to imply any kind of editorial process is to assign to Google News a credibility and reliability which it doesn't have.

Myth: News can be "constructed entirely by computer"
This is already a growing myth among futurists, and with the huge amount of stuff associated with the Google index, is seems logical that the right ruleset would let Google do the cutting and pasting, right?


First, "entirely by computer" ignores the human authorship of the source material. Even if a bot can assemble plausible content by grabbing sentences from somewhere else, the ultimate author is someone.

Second, the myth ignores the only way in which a reporter can add value: by going beyond the press release.

In the Epic view of the world, news is constructed out of press releases. The problem is, Google News is fostering that very belief. The reason for the "syndication spam" I mentioned earlier is that in the online era, news sites seek hits-above-all-else; and this, regrettably, means the editors - the real humans, I mean - have taken a group-think decision to get syndicated wire pieces online as fast as possible.

And this is the real hell, and the real output of Google News: that the information people receive is, far more than even four years ago, dominated by the press release and the syndication.

Even when a journalist produces an outstanding work, the Google News impact is to devalue the original.

Instead, a top-notch story will get condensed by a wire, redistributed as "according to a New York Times report", and it's that syndication rather than the original which will dominate the Google News search.

Real news gets exactly the same weight as a press release.

What Google News offers in the long term - the seeds of which you can already see - is a kind of placebo news built on press releases.

As to the kind of academic visionary who equates the media release with the news, what can I say? Most academics form their opinion of journalists based on snobbery: their training is better than the journalist's. Hence the journo has no real value - since we merely reproduce press releases, why not get a machine to do it?

It's a pity that such a view gets currency in the real world...

Monday, January 31, 2005

Diving Into the World of Blogging

This is merely the "hello world" of this blog.

Having complained for some years about the shortcomings of the IT press (after nearly 18 years as a participant), I was asked by a friend "So why not host a blog about it?"

Here's the blog. I'll know whether to thank the friend for the suggestion after I've found out how much effort is involved...

In the meantime, I would expect to come up with the first genuine post within a day or so.

The quick about me: I trained in electronics, but that was honestly in another age when "electronics" meant "analogue electronics". I swapped to journalism in the second half of the 1980s, first as a specialist in the electronics business (Electronics News in Sydney), and from there made a back-door entry into the IT media.

And there I stayed, in one form or another, with by far the greatest amount of time spent around telecommunications.

These days I'm an analyst; I still write as host of; and now am a blogger.

The views expressed on this blog will always be personal, and will never reflect any employer's opinions, nor will it reflect the interests of my various employers' businesses.

Protecting journalistic access: don't offend the talent.

Lots of people, reading this Vunet piece ( from the point of view of Linux advocacy, will have dismissed the article as being written to serve the interests of an advertiser (Microsoft).

They would be wrong.

Sure, the journalist seems to have avoided the chance to ask a couple of challenging questions, instead happy to merely note-and-quote what Microsoft says about Linux, but I would suggest that the passive attitude wasn't driven by Microsoft's status (or otherwise) as an advertiser.

Skipping over the hard bits was more likely driven by the desire to protect access.

The IT media's access to executives is intimately managed (I might add, executives aren't the only ones who play this game; some of the heroes of the industry choose their outlets with just as much care as if they were Bill Gates).
You get an "exclusive interview" with someone like this either because it was offered by the public relations company, or because you asked the PR company (or the internal PR manager) for the interview.

Nick McGrath (Microsoft head of platforms in the UK) certainly wasn't speaking off-the-cuff in the pub, tossing off a couple of informal views. He was participating in the business of media management, issues management, "spin", call it what you will.

Any journalist is painfully aware of this: offend the "talent" and lose your access; the PR isn't returning calls, the executive's PA tells you "well, you'll have to arrange it through the normal channels", and someone else will be favoured with the story.

So you don't offend the talent.

Were it a press conference, for example, Microsoft may have had to deal with a couple of challenges to its assertions.

First there's this: "One myth we see is that Linux is more secure than Windows. Another is that there are no viruses for Linux," said McGrath."

The obvious return-of-serve would be to ask what viruses have caused widespread damage in the Linux world. As far as I can tell, the most damaging Linux virus emerged a couple of years back, a thing called Slapper, and in Australia (ie, here where I'm writing) it infected just 165 machines.

The question went unasked.

I also had to wonder about this pair of comments, which in the article are separated by a few paragraphs, but bringing them together makes the slip-up clear:
- "McGrath said ... customers are dismissing Linux as too immature to cope with mission-critical computing"
- "McGrath argued that recent growth in Linux deployments came largely at the expense of installed Unix systems, rather than replacement of Windows servers."

If Linux is mission-critical enough to replace Unix, it's surely more mission-critical than Windows, isn't it?