If you're thinking of subscribing to a magazine to help you through the maze of personal-computer technology, there's something you need to understand. The computer trade press is not a skeptical outside observer of the industry it covers. It is, instead, very much a part of that industry.
The best -- or worst -- example is PC Magazine, the most profitable trade publication in the country. An "Editor's Choice" designation from PC can guarantee sales of a new product. A negative review -- or no review at all -- can doom a product to failure.
PC calls itself "The Independent Guide to IBM-Standard Personal Computing." But it has a peculiar notion of what "independent" means. Its July cover story is on graphical word processors for the PC. An editor's note gives some background on its cover story.
"When it comes to giving advice to PC product developers," it says, "PC Magazine's editors are anything but shy. In fact, we have a long history of helping the industry develop the products you want to buy." If that means its reports and reviews are intended to steer the industry in the right direction, it would be one thing. But that's not what it means.
PC goes on to tell how John Dickinson, the magazine's West Coast executive editor, "has been giving Microsoft advice on Microsoft Word" ever since the program appeared seven years ago. "He also made lots of little demands," the magazine boasts, "and even wrote a few printer drivers."
Thus we have this "independent" magazine's editor helping a company he is supposed to be covering develop its product. One of the main subjects of the July cover story is the new, graphical version of Word designed to run under Microsoft Windows. PC can't wait to tell us more about Dickinson's exploits.
"He first looked at Word for Windows in 1988, and soon became a frequent visitor at Microsoft, each time toting a list of features that he felt were missing," PC reports proudly.
You'll never guess who wrote the cover story on graphical word processors. That's right. The same John Dickinson who gave Microsoft all the advice on the program. You will not be surprised to learn that Word for Windows gets a glowing review. Indeed, it gets an "Editor's Choice" designation.
"Word for Windows," he concludes, "is one of the most successful and ambitious programs ever released for the PC, and there are few users who won't find something in it that they've always wanted to see... ." Well, certainly Dickinson was going to find what he wanted to see in the product, since he told them what to put in.
Does anyone really think PC could have given Word for Windows an impartial review in light of its editor's role in the product's development? In fairness, it should be noted that Samna's Ami Professional also gets an "Editor's Choice" designation.
But wait. Dickinson, it turns out, "beta" tested Ami Professional for Samna. Beta testing is the process in which software in the final stages of development is sent out to selected users for experimental use. They report any bugs or problems, as well as other suggestions for improving the software.
This is a classic conflict of interest. Dickinson was assigned by PC to review products that contained his own handiwork.
Do not expect the magazine's top man, Bill Machrone, to understand. He has a unique role. He is both PC's editor and its "publishing director," a breach of the separation many publications observe between their editorial and business sides.
Machrone said his magazine has a different role from, say, Consumer Reports. "We're not a consumer advocacy publication, we're a business-to-business publication," he said. "We're consulted by software companies of every size. ... We give them constant advice. If that means users get a better product, everybody's the better for it."
Machrone is a pleasant man, but he is a world-class tub-thumper for whatever the big boys of the industry are pushing at any given time. When IBM and Microsoft brought out OS2, the advanced operating software for PCs, he was all for that. But it's been a total flop.
Now Microsoft has brought out version 3.0 of Windows, which has many of the same features as OS2, but runs with MS-DOS, the original operating software. Windows is an important advance, but it performs sluggishly on all but the most powerful PCs and is virtually useless on the first-generation PCs and XTs that tens of millions still use.
Machrone has confessed publicly that PC Magazine is no longer interested in those first-generation machines. The industry, eager to get people to buy new hardware and software, isn't interested in them either. In its "First Looks" section of the July issue, PC calls Windows 3.0 "dazzling" and "the best implementation of a graphical environment for PC users available anywhere."Brit Hume is a contributor to the Washington Post Writers Group. He is chief ABC News White House correspondent and the founding editor of a computer newsletter.