Walt Mossberg goes for the jugular

Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal’s personal tech columnist, usually writes columns that are scrupulously fair, in which he takes issue with the flaws of a device (which he invariably gets before anyone else) but in a relatively diplomatic fashion — balanced by comments about the positive aspects of whatever it is that he’s reviewing. Not today though. Today, Walt seems to be mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it any more.

Maybe Walt is catching on to the spirit of the blogosphere, but his blog post at All Things D — which is about how cellular providers lock in their customers — is everything his WSJ columns aren’t: opinionated, even angry. But rightly so. His point is a simple one: Why are mobile carriers able to lock down their devices and prevent people from using them on other networks? As Walt notes, your PC doesn’t work with just one Internet service provider. The car company doesn’t prevent you from driving on certain roads. And yet, for some reason we have become complacent about the way that cellular contracts restrict our choices. And all because, as Walt puts it:

“A shortsighted and often just plain stupid federal government has allowed itself to be bullied and fooled by a handful of big wireless phone operators for decades now.”

Walt goes on to compare the cellular companies to the old Soviet ministries, who tried to coerce markets into operating the way they wanted them to, instead of adapting to the way that they functioned. And he also draws a straight line connecting their current behaviour with the way the early phone companies such as AT&T ran things, with phones that only connected using their network.

When it comes to the technology part of his argument, I’m not sure Walt is on such firm ground. While the U.S. choosing to allow multiple standards may have been wrong in the long run, mandating a single standard (as Europe did) would undoubtedly have caused a hue-and-cry about state control, even though it resulted in a market that increased consumer choice.

Mossberg also correctly notes, however, that the phone subsidies the carriers use to justify their customer lock-down practices are a sham — or rather, a circular argument. Phones are expensive (and therefore require subsidies) in part because consumers can’t buy and use them freely across different networks.

In any case, it’s nice to see Mossberg not pull any punches for once. Welcome to the blogosphere, Walt.

Hangin’ with Bill at the D conference

Sometimes it’s just impossible not to hate Walt Mossberg. Okay, hate is a strong word. But still — not only does he have a plum job getting access to all the cool gadgets and tech stuff, and writing about it for the Wall Street Journal, but he also hosts the D: All Things Digital conference, which routinely gets people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt to show up and be interviewed and even hang around by the pool.

Case in point: Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications in Washington attended the conference and wrote about it for IPDemocracy, summarizing what Billg said in his interview — and describing how he buttonholed the gazillionaire over by the “poolside pastry/dessert table” and asked him what he thought about net neutrality. Not surprisingly perhaps, Bill said that he was “in the middle” on the issue, before being whisked away by Washington Post CEO Don Graham.

Among other things, Arlen says that Bill is convinced this is the year IPTV really takes off (it had better be, since Microsoft has been selling that vision to plenty of companies, including Verizon and AT&T). Of course, Bill also said about 10 years ago that ubiquitous pen-based computing was right around the corner, but hey — let’s not get picky. Here’s Arlen’s take:

IP “blows away the broadcast model,” Gates said, predicting that “this is the year all the pieces” will come together and eliminate the “dividing line between TV and the Internet.” Asked about the traditional broadcast model, he bluntly pronounced, “It’s gone. It was a hack.”

More coverage of Gates here, and at PaidContent, where they have a great shot of the Bill Gates “bobblehead” doll that Walt gave to the real Bill as a speaker’s gift. Very classy. And Eric Savitz at Barron’s has a list of the “schwag” in the bags given to D attendees (hat tip to Paul Kedrosky for the link), including a coupon for money off five office chairs from Steelcase. How Web 1.0.

Update:

Arianna Huffington of HuffingtonPost.com has a description of Bill Gates’ keynote — an account that is interspersed with notes back and forth between Arianna and actor John Cusack (hat tip to paidcontent.org for the link).