Dull Machines

For all the good work done in technology coverage, it's too bad it doesn't engage us more consistently

This week, the world's richest man, the man who created the software most of us use to manage our lives, got up at a gathering in Los Angeles and offered an early peek at the next version of that software, which will be called, oddly enough, Longhorn.

Computers matter, so it's only natural that even in a week of suicide bombs, massive fires, solar flares, and another royal scandal, Bill Gates's latest media product-placement was pretty successful. Longhorn got nice play in all the usual tech-news outlets, and in some not-so-usual ones, too. I saw it first on the Drudge Report and clicked on the link to the Web site of The Financial Times. Here's a sample from the FT story:

"The next version of the ubiquitous PC software will come with a new 'sidebar' running down one side of the screen. The sidebar, which stays visible while the PC user works in an application, can show things like a 'buddy list' of contacts, display a slide show of photographs or receive other types of media."

The final paragraph of the story added this twist: "The company also said Longhorn would be more secure and reliable. Mr. Gates first promised these things with the 'Trustworthy Computing' initiative he launched three years ago, but Microsoft has been embarrassed this year by a spate of computer worms and viruses that exploit weaknesses in Windows."

The Associated Press version, which I saw on Yahoo!, quoted Gates on the fantastic promise of his own product: "A personal computer, in less than three years, will be a pretty phenomenal device."

Isn't that deeply thrilling? Imagine: a "buddy list" on a new "sidebar"!

Do you ever feel there's something lacking in the major media's coverage of the tech world? Even if you only follow this stuff casually, you can probably sketch out how the Longhorn story will unfold in the months and years to come. More hype, followed by dry, earnest reporting on same, along with a measure of dry, earnest skepticism from certain quarters. Product launch, accompanied by additional hype, followed by muted, mixed reviews. Problems with product, as tens of millions of people struggle with its flaws and bugs, wait on hold for technical assistance, waste time and money, spend entire weekends trying to repair the thing or waiting for their geeky brother-in-law to show up and do it for them. Then, just as the complaints are getting really loud, the next wave of hype begins.

I realize we should all be grateful for the many tech miracles in our lives. In a very short time, Microsoft and the industry it leads have changed the world. Ten years ago, personal computers were primitive, e-mail was still a novelty, and the Internet was balky and frustrating.

As the technology has matured, the journalism about it has grown up somewhat, too. Today, major newspapers, magazines, and Web sites devote entire sections to tech news and advice, the most prominent being the weekly Circuits section of The New York Times. The tech revolution has sprouted one columnist with an enormous mass following, Walter S. Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal.

The people behind this coverage work hard at keeping up with tech innovations and cutting through the hype. When I'm about to buy a new tech device or trying to fix a broken one, I check in on the latest advice from Rob Pegoraro, The Washington Post's very accessible and helpful tech writer. One day last week, both Mossberg and New York Times tech columnist David Pogue wrote engaging columns on the utter superiority of Macintosh over Windows when it comes to fighting viruses and other security threats. Anyone who had read these columns and then saw the Longhorn news was already wise to the game, and could only smile wryly at Gates's pretty promises.

Still, for all the good work that's done, when you consider how large technology looms in our lives, it's too bad the mainstream coverage doesn't come in more flavors and voices, isn't wilder and feistier, doesn't engage more of us more consistently. The coverage of the tech revolution is, by and large, meager, complaisant, and dull.

At one end, you've got the new-product porn that follows launches of laptops, cellphones, personal digital assistants, MP3 players, and all the rest. You've seen the big photo spreads, the gushy text, the headlines that ask, WHICH ONE IS FOR YOU? At the other end you've got Consumer Reports, plus several major product-review Web sites, plus the good gray Mossbergians, the handful of practical sages who help us decide what to buy and troubleshoot it when it fails.

Between these poles, there's not much happening, certainly not much drama or passion. Once upon a time, high-tech innovation seemed to be the next news frontier, the Big Swinging Story of our time. Now it looks like a yawn.

Maybe the problem is that this revolution just isn't all that colorful. On paper, Bill Gates is the Henry Ford, the Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Andrew Carnegie of our time. Yet unlike those figures and despite extensive media exposure, he's barely come alive as a public character. Could it be that he's just not a compelling guy?

As for the machines themselves, the transformative magic of computers just doesn't have the sweep and drama of railroads crisscrossing a nation or oil gushing from wells. Computers are intricate, quiet, utilitarian machines that, let's face it, already do their jobs quite nicely. And—repeat after me—every day, in every way, they're getting better and better.