My Phoner with Pogue

By Tom Peters | During the week leading up to ALA Midwinter, I received an email message from a publicist, stating that his client would be attending Midwinter, and wondering if I would like to conduct an interview. His client is David Pogue, the excellent NY Times columnist and blogger who writes about technology topics, especially handheld electronic devices. I jumped at the chance to interview Pogue, suggesting 10 Sunday morning as the appointed time.

David Pogue writes about technology for the NY Times. The publicist replied that Sunday at 10 would work, but it would have to be a telephone interview—a “phoner” in the parlance of publicists. I had been hoping for an in-person interview, but a phoner would suffice.

I began thinking about the questions I would ask. Pogue gave a public talk on Saturday afternoon at one of the conference hotels. He spoke primarily about his recently published book, Windows Vista: The Missing Manual. I arrived late and had to leave early, but his talk was well attended, even if the cheese platter did arrive later than I.

Later, I learned after I had left, David launched into an a cappella performance of his recent blog post (no-cost subscription required), “Ode to the R.I.A.A.,” sung to the tune of "Y.M.C.A.”—which points to a new trend: speakers at library conferences who break into song.

Last October, the mystery author J.A. Jance performed two a cappella songs near the conclusion of her keynote address at the Internet Librarian Conference in Monterey, California. If two instances don't make a trend, I'm a horse's uncle. (Consequently, since returning from ALA Midwinter on Monday, I have begun practicing various tunes from the musical South Pacific, which I plan to inflict on the audience that attends my next public speech. That could be some enchanted evening indeed.)

Sunday morning at 10 sharp I dialed David's cell phone number. It was turned off, so I left a voice message.

Tom Peters playing DDR at the ALA TechSource and American Libraries booth at ALA MW07.Dang, had David stiffed me? Thinking that my opportunity for a phoner with Pogue had passed me by, I headed into the exhibit hall to lift my low spirits with some DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) foot-stomping fun at the ALA TechSource and American Libraries booth. Low and behold, at 10:20, David called me and said we could engage in our phoner now.

Because this was Pogue's first library conference, I began by asking for his first impression of librarians as a group. He said that, like teachers, librarians seem to dedicate their lives to helping others, primarily for the joy and satisfaction of it, with little or no possibility for fame or fortune. You got that right, David.

Because Pogue writes frequently about portable information and communication appliances, I asked him for his thoughts about the amazing success of Apple, with its iPod line of devices and its soon-to-be-released iPhone. I also mentioned that Apple's business practices—which tend to be exclusionary—caused me, as well as other librarians, concern.

Pogue responded with the best apology (in the sense of a justification or defense of Apple) I have ever heard or read. He said that Apple has achieved its success in the device marketplace (21 million iPods shipped during the fourth quarter of 2006 alone, double the number that shipped in the same period of 2005, with concomitant record profits) because those at the company seek perfection, sweat the details, have eyes (and ears) for elegance, and pay close attention to the end-user experience. These, for Pogue, are the keys to Apple's recent success.

Pogue predicted that other companies soon will try to mimic the iPhone, but without that strong desire for perfection, attention to detail, sense of style, and regard for the end-user. Pogue predicts that all of these knock-offs will miss the mark.

An older pair of iPod earbuds from Apple.Pogue offered the design of the lowly earbuds as a case in point of how Apple sweats the details. One problem with earbuds is that they often become hopelessly tangled. (You got that right too, David.) Apple addressed this problem by adding a sliding “noose” to its ear buds, so the user can turn the two cords that go to the left and right buds into one combined cord when not being used. Apple also added some sort of finish to the earbud cords, which make them less likely to grip and become tangled.

We also talked a bit about why Apple won't open up its digital rights management (DRM) and license digital content to other parties so that, for example, digital audiobooks from OverDrive and NetLibrary would work on iPods. Pogue noted that Apple really likes to control the entire experience so that third parties don't muck it up. He pointed out that, initially, Microsoft licensed its DRM scheme to third parties, but that strategy tanked in the marketplace—so Microsoft is pursuing a more Apple-esque DRM strategy with its new Zune line of devices. Pogue thinks that history already has proven that Apple pursued the right DRM course.

Because I work with library users who are blind or who have low vision, I asked Pogue for his thoughts about the accessibility of portable handheld devices designed for the mainstream consumer market. He admitted that this is a big challenge. The early model of the iPhone he recently tested, for example, may be completely unusable by a blind person. Pogue noted that, for better or worse, this is the current nature of the device market. Manufacturers aim for the largest segment of the population that will generate a high sales volume quickly and, hopefully, large profits. Making a device accessible to everyone usually is a very late afterthought, if ever.

Not surprisingly, Pogue sees no future in dedicated-reading devices, such as the Sony Reader. For Pogue, these devices are a solution in search of a problem. He thinks most e-book reading will be done on cell phones.

I also asked Pogue what he thought of Second Life and other MUVEs (Multi-User Virtual Environments). He said that, currently, they seem to be little more than “glorified time killers”—I think that's a direct quote. Because this was an interview, not a debate, I didn't pick up that gauntlet.

Pogue did mention that he will be interviewing the CEO of Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life. Perhaps that will expand his vista regarding MUVEs. He said that interview is scheduled to appear on February 18th during the CBS Sunday Morning television program.

And thus, chastising myself internally that I had neglected to inform the major TV networks of my phoner with Pogue (with my luck, Geraldo would have shown up), I thanked him and concluded our interview before either of us spontaneously broke into song.
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