Where’s the “tech” in tech blogging?

A minor scandal has gently rocked the tech world lately, as the CrunchFund-…uh…-funded startup Path was caught uploading its users’ entire Address Books from their iPhones to Path’s servers. Path quickly rationalized, then apologized, then did a reasonably good job of making amends, but it stirred up a lot of concern (which probably should have been stirred up much sooner) about social networking platforms harvesting too much private Address Book data, and Apple’s iOS, in particular, not doing enough (which is to say, anything) to warn users that this was going on.

But more attention is now being drawn to the playground fight between former TechCrunch writer, current CrunchFund investor, Michael Arrington acolyte and self-serving tech blogger M.G. Siegler, and former Fake Steve Jobs, ongoing Newsweek technology editor and self-serving tech blogger Dan Lyons. I’m quickly learning that while it’s not possible to agree with both of them, it’s quite easy to disagree with both. In this situation neither seems nearly as concerned with the actual technology involved — nor in finding a technical solution to the dilemma of startups that want to offer their users the benefits of social integration while respecting privacy — as in proving their own awesomeness while ripping the other to shreds.

In short, it’s becoming a lot harder to see where technology fits into all of this ostensible tech blogging.

For quite a while I’ve been on M.G. Siegler’s side. To be honest I haven’t paid Dan Lyons much attention. He seemed like a gimmicky hack when he was pretending to be Steve Jobs, and just a bitter hack afterwards. M.G. Siegler isn’t necessarily much better. I have long loathed Michael Arrington’s work and anything associated with it (as I’ve documented here before), with the lone exception of Apple-focused M.G. Siegler. Which isn’t to say I am a huge Siegler fan (despite how frequently I have cited him on The Undisciplined Room); his favorite topic, I have learned, is not Apple but himself. He also peppers his writing with far too much gratuitous profanity for my taste. (Not that I don’t swear like a fucking sailor most of the time, but swearing just to make your writing seem edgy has been passé since shortly after Rolling Stone started doing it 40 years ago.) But even if I bristle at his style, I usually find his writing engaging, if not informative.

When the late, great Clara Peller famously asked “Where’s the beef?” (yes, I just went there), she wasn’t calling for a grudge match between two Silicon Valley pseudo-journalists; she was looking for something of substance. And substance is in as short supply in money-driven tech blogging as it was in fast food in the ’80s. (Thank goodness for Wendy’s and its public service campaign that fixed that, once and for all.)

To find the substance, we can go back to a voice that has been engaged in this Path discussion from the very beginning, one of my new favorite (real) tech bloggers, Matt Gemmell. Not only is he focused on solving the problem of Address Book privacy rather than on inflating his own stature in the blogging world, he actually knows what he’s talking about and has described a brilliant solution to the problem that I think every company that is collecting personal data from its users should employ.

In short, it’s easy to figure out which tech bloggers to side with: the ones who actually talk about technology, instead of each other.

Uh… excluding this post… by me… of course.

Fortunately for me, I don’t have enough of an audience to matter. (And with that attitude I never will either, I say in my head, in the voice of Agnes Skinner.) The majority of my traffic is one-time visitors searching Google to figure out why their Macs aren’t working right, or trying to get Drupal out of their lives, or wondering why open water on maps scares them so much, or trying to make sense of that weird Brooks Brothers logo. You know, the important stuff.

On doing what you love, loving what you do, and not burning out along the way

There’s been a lot of talk over the past few days about Michael Arrington’s blog post concerning the long hours and dedication it takes to work for a startup.

I’ll keep my general criticism of Arrington to a minimum here, but to sum it up as I understand it: he founded a popular tech blog, stirred up controversy by investing in some of the companies he covered, sold said tech blog to Huffington Post, fought with Arianna Huffington something something CrunchPad/JooJoo something something Aol. Now he’s a VC, to more perfectly promote himself, which is what this all seems to be about anyway. (In short, I’m not a fan, and had solidified my opinion long before this week’s events.)

His blog post, berating overworked startup employees for being whiny crybabies (because they need things like sleep and a life apart from their jobs), while also somehow implying that Zynga is creating something of lasting value to the world, quoted extensively from a 1994 online diary (blogs didn’t exist back then) of former Netscape programmer Jamie Zawinski. Zawinski was, to put it mildly, not happy that Arrington used his words in the service of Arrington’s VC agenda. In the wake of Zawinski’s retort, there’s been a swelling of further outrage on Twitter and by bloggers like Amy Hoy and Rachel Andrew, among just a few links I’ve clicked in the past 48 hours.

All of this is increasingly resonating with my own experience. I’ve never worked for a Silicon Valley startup, but I’ve had a couple of startup-like experiences in my 15-year career as a web professional. I’ve never actually been driven to the point of sleeping under my desk and not leaving the office for days at a time, but the opportunity was there for me, if I had wanted to take it. Instead, I walked away, every time.

First, in 2000, just before the first tech bubble burst, I was brought in to be the “HTML guru” on the first e-commerce venture of a certain big box retailer. It was no startup, but it was being run like one. The .com team took over a (very) large conference room, turned off all of the overhead lights, and built a cubicle maze lit by floor lamps and dotted with potted trees. Aeron chairs and (promises of) vast fortunes in stock options for all! After a few months I started to see through the façade. The likelihood of a separate .com stock spinoff (the thing that was really going to make us all rich) evaporated, and our inspirational, visionary VP resigned the Friday before the site launched. It wasn’t long before I was gone, too.

Then, in 2008, I went to work for a (more-or-less) real startup. It was a “fun” work environment where we were entitled to all of the free breakfast cereals, ramen noodles, and caffeinated sodas we could consume. There was an XBOX 360 with Rock Band (which was still cool at the time) in the breakroom. We could hang out, bring dogs to work every day, ride around the office on scooters, all of that. We were encouraged to think of ourselves as “co-presidents” (actual shares in company ownership notwithstanding). We were also expected to log 36 billable hours a week. Maybe that’s no big deal when you’re fresh out of college, have no external commitments, and can be adequately enticed to stay at work until 11 PM with the promise of free ordered-in burritos. But I was 34, with two preschool-aged kids at home. And having to log 36 billable hours when you’re only in the office for 40 (and have to reserve enough energy to chase two kids around when you get home) can prove just as stressful as working 60 hours a week when you’re sleeping under your desk. (Or so it seemed at the time. I don’t care to try to prove it.) I only lasted at that job for 3 months.

As it happened, just as I was beginning that job I was also subconsciously assembling the pieces of what I really wanted to do, which was to go out on my own as a freelance web developer and consultant. I had acquired the necessary technical skills over a (then) 12-year career working for the two aforementioned companies as well as four others. I had built up a large enough network of contacts that I could tap into to drum up business (if you’ll permit such a ghastly mixed metaphor). All I needed was the confidence to take the leap and do it.

My goal was not to get rich (at least, not directly). It was not to revolutionize the industry. It was just to do what I do well, on my own terms. To please and delight my clients with top-quality work. To do what I love, and love what I do. And let it grow from there.

Three years later, I’m still here. I’m not rich. I haven’t started a revolution. But I’m making a stable living, and I’m meeting my target of 25 to 30 billable hours a week. I have a growing list of satisfied clients, and I’ve built something pretty cool along the way. This business is working, and I’m working on my own terms.

I don’t say all of this to gloat. I am proud of what I’ve achieved (and that I’ve done it without an “angel investor”). But there are a lot of people who’ve achieved a lot more in the Internet than I have, and probably more than I ever will. Still, there’s room for me, and there’s room for more, too. You just need to have the confidence to take the risk. But when you do it, do it for yourself.

Resolved: All tech bloggers (including myself) are longwinded, narcissistic douchebags (except maybe John Gruber, depending on what he means by his latest post)

Why's it so green?There are some tech blogs I read a lot, and there are others I rarely read.

The ones I read a lot tend to have certain characteristics in common: they’re relatively simple in design; they frequently veer off-topic into tangential areas I also find interesting (meaning they’re written by real people instead of corporate tools); and they usually have few if any ads, usually served by invitation-only ad networks like The Deck. (I’d love to be invited to make ancillary income from an exclusive ad network but for now I am settling for the pittance Google throws my way.) Most importantly, they usually get right to the point.

The ones I rarely read also have certain characteristics in common, and unsurprisingly, most are diametrically opposed to the characteristics of the blogs I do read: they’re cluttered, with too many navigation tabs leading you to related sites in the “network” owned by the same faceless holding corporation; they usually stay within their narrowly-defined topical box dictated by said faceless holding corporation; they’re swimming in obnoxious Flash ads that creep across the text and force you to interact with them, if only to shoo them away. And they blather on and on, clearly paid by the word, with insipid, uninformed (despite their extensive network of industry connections and apparently large readership) opinions.

Now at this point you may be thinking my own blog more closely resembles the second group, save for the corporate overlords and industry connections (and money). And maybe you’re right. But that’s my own failing, and is probably why this blog falls into the “audience of one” category.

Anyway… by now it’s probably obvious to anyone reading this blog regularly (i.e. me) that one of my primary sources of tech news is John Gruber’s Daring Fireball. Gruber is an Apple fan, but he’s also highly insightful and more than willing to criticize Apple when he thinks they’ve screwed up (see the ongoing App Store debacle). I’m less appreciative of Gruber’s enthusiasm for the New York Yankees. But my favorite aspect of Daring Fireball is probably the “Claim Chowder” posts, where he cites foolish claims from the past — often focused on Apple’s perpetually-impending demise — that have since been proven egregiously false. There are two of what I would call “corporate bloggers” who are frequent targets of his ridicule: Rob Enderle and Michael Arrington.

Today Gruber hit the jackpot: Enderle is commenting on Arrington. Well, sort of. He’s actually commenting on the JooJoo: the poorly named phoenix rising from the ashes of Arrington’s ill-conceived and now doomed device concept, the CrunchPad.

I still do not “get” tablet PCs. I especially don’t get the JooJoo: as large as a regular laptop, and priced as high as an entry-level model, but with no keyboard, and a handful of other frustrating limitations for the form factor. What it really comes down to for me is that it’s as big as a laptop, but it can’t do everything a laptop can do. And it’s not cheap enough for price to make a significant difference. What niche is this thing supposed to fill?

I’ll be honest — when I first heard rumors that Apple was going to make a phone, I thought it was a terrible idea. I managed to avoid my own case of claim chowder by not really mentioning the iPhone announcement on this blog when it hit, but suffice to say as much as I thought an Apple phone was never going to happen — even right up to the beginning of the keynote where it was announced — by the end of the demo, I was convinced that the iPhone was the best invention ever. Like the iPod, it filled a niche. Before the iPod, MP3 players… well… they sucked. And before the iPhone, cell phones, even “smart” ones, pretty much sucked too. The iPhone worked because it brought together all of the best qualities of a number of disparate devices that had never previously existed in the same unit, along with a few brilliant new ideas of its own (all while getting rid of most of the “suck”), wrapped up in the first such device designed with the level of polish and perfection to satisfy Steve Jobs.

Ultimately though it was all about the niche. The devices we could carry in our pockets before the iPhone simply couldn’t do the kinds of things we now take for granted, thanks to the iPhone. I just don’t see a laptop-sized device, with a subset of the features of a laptop and a low-end laptop price tag, filling any kind of a niche. The thing needs to be able to do things current, comparably sized and priced devices can’t. And this doesn’t.

The question of whether Apple can produce something that does is another matter. At the risk of cooking up a steaming pot of claim chowder, and with my early disdain for the Apple phone rumors still in mind, I have to say I just don’t see something like this coming out of Apple, despite the incessant rumors of parts orders from Chinese manufacturers.

All the rumors say Apple’s tablet will be based on the iPhone OS, which seems more likely to me than a Mac OS tablet. But there’s too much about the iPhone “ecosystem” that just wouldn’t seem to translate to a larger tablet device, most obvious being the fixed display resolution. No way is Apple going to produce a device with a 10-inch screen and 480×320 resolution (even the original 1984 Macs had 512×384 displays), but by that same token, I don’t see the iPhone OS interface suddenly supporting multiple resolutions when there are over 100,000 apps all built around this one fixed resolution. Though I haven’t worked with iPhone development, I’m willing to bet that enough iPhone app interfaces use bitmapped images (not scalable vector graphics) that they’d appear completely broken at any other resolution — and even if they are vector-based, they’d scale up in a way that would look ridiculous. And this is just the most obvious reason to me that an iPhone OS-based tablet seems far-fetched.

But all of that doesn’t even get to my point. My point is bloggers like Arrington and Enderle, who make their livings spouting nonsense speculation far worse than what I’ve undertaken in the past two paragraphs, and other bloggers like Gruber who make a (more modest) living partially by calling them out on their bullshit. Which brings me back to Gruber’s latest post. I’m not even sure what to make of it:

Further proof that Enderle’s idiot shtick is an act.

I know Gruber has been speculating lately that Enderle is deliberately writing crap (for whatever nefarious purpose one would have to do such a thing, much like how Gretchen Carlson dumbs down her commentary on Fox News, as revealed by Jon Stewart last night), and that’s entirely possible. But I honestly don’t know what Gruber really means by this comment, in regards to Enderle’s specific post on the folly of the JooJoo (which seems right on) and his thoughts on what it might mean for a future Apple tablet. Personally I think this kind of does spell trouble for an Apple tablet, but only because I think the tablet is kind of a stupid idea anyway.

Time will prove all of us right or wrong. If nothing else, Enderle and Arrington (and Carlson) give us an interesting spectacle to watch… just like a train wreck.

Update: In the time it took me to write this post, Gruber amended his original post with the following, which provides some much-needed (though perhaps not enough) clarification:

I mean, come on, no one really believes that the JooJoo is going to affect Apple even one iota, right?

This can be taken in one of two ways. It all depends on whether or not you think Apple is actually working on a tablet.