Is Walt Mossberg The Man Behind Apple's Success?

Who is Walt Mossberg? Perhaps such a Randian question should not be permitted. Mossberg, after all, is hardly a shadowy figure. For 22 years he was the man behind a good deal of the Wall Street Journal’s technology commentary. From a single column in 1991 he built the inimitable tech site, All Things D, for the Journal’s parent company News Corp. And he hasn’t been content to rest on his laurels.

Last year, at age 67, Mossberg announced that he was leaving the Wall Street Journal and All Things D behind to launch his own review site. The project, begun with business partner Kara Swisher — herself a tech review juggernaut, is up and running now. It is called Re/code.

That’s a bold and noteworthy move for anyone over the legal retirement age, but even more significant because Mossberg may be the one man outside of Apple who is as responsible for that company’s success as anyone within its notoriously cloistered environment.

Nestled in a recent Business Insider article that related confessions of former Apple employees was this little gem:

"Internally, the culture is of extreme secrecy, even more extreme politics and marketing driven decision making. Everything, and I mean everything, is decided by the marketing team at Apple, and 2 reviewers in east coast newspapers. I was shocked and flabbergasted at the role these reviewers had at Apple. As an engineer, I was told to tend to feature requests that were made by Mossberg and party. Scary, and makes me want to sell all my Apple stock.”

That’s a primary, albeit anonymous, source saying that Mossberg (almost) single handedly drives Apple design. Whether that is good or bad is left to the reader. Whether it is intentional on Mossberg’s part is fuzzy. And whether it signifies that Apple may not be as innovative as everyone previously thought is just as debatable.

Could it be that there is quiet collusion between the Cupertino boys and the silver haired reviewer? Or does Apple just hit Mossberg’s sweet spot with nearly every new release?

From his first “personal technology” column — a phrase he claims to have coined — to his dedicated technology news sites, Mossberg has been a sort of reviewer-for-the-masses. One man on a crusade to make technology easier to use. His common sense and plain-English reviews of leading technology products consistently shed light on the products he believes are well-designed and accessible to everyone. That focus on ease-of-use has drawn the ire of his critics because he loves to tout the sleek designs and interfaces of many Apple products.

Indeed, Mossberg has been denounced many times over as an Apple “fanboy” — the pejorative term for anyone so ensconced in the Apple way of doing things that they refuse to acknowledge the accomplishments of other innovative companies.

He recently fired back at those who throw around the fanboy accusation. His first column for Re/code was titled, "It’s Not a Church, It’s Just an Apple Store." In it he bemoaned the creation of such terms and the mere existence of those who take other people’s choices in personal technology products so, well, personally. He also pointed out that he may have backed himself into a corner. He noted in the article that he was once attacked for listing some downsides of a new iPad; proving that fanboys can turn cannibalistic in the face of apostasy.

He closed that column with the following advice, “Calm down. Enjoy your phones and tablets and laptops and software. But don’t overlook their flaws, and don’t hate people who like other stuff.” Perhaps it's a signal that he is growing weary of the contentious nature of technology debates. He has never been one to engage in all-out attacks on other company’s products. But the label of fanboy has lingered for sometime.

In many ways, though, Mossberg leaves himself open to the criticism. His final column for All Things D was a simple rundown of what he thought were the twelve most innovative products in technology over the last two decades. He included five Apple products in the list, including Apple’s Newton Message Pad. Remember those? Didn’t think so. He also, not surprisingly — and not (completely) unjustly, included the iPad, the iPod, the iPhone, and the MacBookAir.

Well, that’s the five. Then he went on to point out in his nod to Windows 95 as a groundbreaking operating system that Apple’s Macintosh had been using a similar system for a decade. And there you have it, he managed to mention the Cupertino company in half of the products that he highlighted.

That may not be his fault though. Apple does churn out easy to use products. And as mentioned, that has always been Mossberg’s focus. His first tech column with the Kubrick-styled title, “How to Stop Worrying And Get the Most From Your PC”, Mossberg opened with the following salvo, “Personal Computers are just too hard to use and it isn’t your fault.”

Twenty-two years later the reviewer has not changed his tune. He remains dedicated to user accessibility. Unfortunately, for his reputation among some, that means he rarely has a bad thing to say about an Apple product. But why would he if Apple is, as alleged, tailoring their design to his whims? And since Mossberg has developed such a devoted following — one that enabled him to go it alone with his own site — why wouldn’t Apple try to keep everyman’s reviewer happy?

Call it a chicken or the egg question. Call it a symbiotic relationship. (Please don’t use the word “synergy.’) But whatever it is called, the success of the hushed relationship seems to be working for both.

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