Consumer Technology Champion for the Mainstream User
For most journalists, a job as the Wall Street Journal's national security correspondent, traveling the world with the U.S. Secretary of State and covering developments such as the fall of communism would be the pinnacle of a career. For BIF2 co-host Walt Mossberg, it was just the beginning.
After 18 years covering national and international affairs, Mossberg decided in 1990 it was time for a change. It was the dawn of the digital era, and the tech junkie in Mossberg recognized a hole in coverage of the burgeoning high-tech industry.
"Almost every paper had some kind of computer or technology column, but they were written by geeks for geeks. They tended to be full of technical jargon, aimed at people who were techies or striving to be techies, and they were reverential toward the industry, dripping with condescension toward mainstream users who were not techies," he says. "I decided this was wrong, that this stuff was going to explode and that in fact it was not going to remain the province of techies and hobbyists, or it would die."
Mossberg approached his editor at the Journal and pitched a different kind of tech column.
"I proposed that we turn the formula on its head, that we champion the mainstream but non-technical user, that we be critical in strong terms of the industry to the extent that it failed to serve those users," he says, "and that we write the column in plain English, not jargon."
That approach was evident from the first line of Mossberg's first column in October 1991: "Personal computers are just too hard to use," he wrote, "and it isn't your fault."
Thus was born Personal Technology, Mossberg's flagship column, which quickly established itself as one of the Journal's most popular reads and one of the most talked-about tech columns in the country.
Mossberg now also writes two other columns a week in the Journal. In The Mossberg Solution, co-written with Katherine Boehret, he compares consumer electronic gadgets, and in Mossberg's Mailbox, he answers readers' questions. He also writes a monthly column in the Journal's SmartMoney magazine and has a weekly television spot on CNBC. With his colleague Kara Swisher, he created and hosts the Journal's D: All Things Digital conference, an annual highlight for the high-tech industry.
Mossberg has received numerous awards for his writing, among them the Loeb Award for Commentary — the only technology writer to win it—and Technology Marketing magazine's vote as the most influential journalist writing about computers, for seven years in a row.
Newsweek called Mossberg "the most powerful arbiter of consumer tastes in the computer world today;" the Washington Post named him "one of the most powerful men in the high-tech world" and Wired magazine dubbed him the Kingmaker, noting that "few reviewers have held so much power to shape an industry's successes and failures."
But Mossberg, a Rhode Island native who now lives outside Washington, downplays his influence.
"I don't think I can break companies," he says. Pressed, he admits, "But I certainly can go a long way to help make a product."
While the tech industry has made strides toward user-friendliness in recent years, it still has a ways to go — as Mossberg quickly makes clear.
"Why are we still booting up our computers? It's the year 2006, you paid a couple of grand for a system — and it takes five minutes to boot up. Why isn't there a button to just turn it on and off like a TV?" he asks. "Why isn't there a button so you can just mute a cellphone quickly in a theater, instead of having to go searching through some menu to do it?"
Despite all the awards and honors, Mossberg says he's proudest of the fact that he has remained true to the original vision behind Personal Technology.
"To this day, I'm extremely protective of average users — those mainstream consumers who aren't hobbyists or enthusiasts or techies," he says. "I set off a change in the way things are covered to put the user first. Now it's very common. But my only goal has always been serving the readers."