Information Processing

Computer Columnists: The Power of Good Press

Anne R. Field in New York and Deborah C. Wise in San Francisco
Business Week

May 6, 1985

Computer Columnist, InfoWorldBroadway critics get aisle seats. Movie reviewers get private screening rooms. Life isn't quite as glamorous for the journalists who evaluate personal computer programs, but in the hotly competitive software business, a handful of specialized writers wield unusual power.

Consider tiny Borland International Inc., which recently won InfoWorld's software-product-of-the-year award for a desk organizer program called Sidekick. Sales jumped 30%. ''It's like winning an Academy Award,'' exclaims Philippe Kahn, Borland's president.

Reviews and media praise, of course, don't guarantee success. But software companies, like cigar-chomping theater producers, crave favorable notices. Good press can make an expensive marketing campaign all the more effective. The glowing review of Lotus Development Corp.'s Jazz in the May edition of Personal Computing, for example, is building the software program's word-of-mouth reputation, even though the product is not yet on the market (page 114). ''Reviews play a critical part in the rollout of new products,'' notes H. Glen Haney, president of MicroPro International Corp., which is in the midst of a campaign to publicize a new word processing program.


Industry analysts agree the most influential computer publication is Byte, published by McGraw-Hill Inc. It attracts hard-core ''techies'' and sets the tone for most other trade publications. Then there is a group of computer magazines targeting business-oriented users of personal computers. They include Personal Computing, InfoWorld, Popular Computing, and PC World, to name a few. In addition, several general-circulation newspapers, among them The New York Times, offer regular computer columns.

As the personal computer industry grows, top reviewers are reaching an ever widening audience. Styles differ. Reviews range from rambling musings to detailed step-by-step descriptions. But whatever the style, favorable comments can wind up making money for a fledgling software company. ''If I plug a product, it usually gets a lot of calls,'' boasts John C. Dvorak, whose ''Inside Track'' column in InfoWorld is among the most influential. ''I don't plug junk.''

Polaris Software Co. is just one of the many small companies helped by a kind word from Dvorak. Its $99 Polaris Print Merge links the popular WordStar word processing program with Hewlett-Packard Co.'s new laser printer. Four months after the product's January release, an enthusiastic nod from Dvorak caused sales to quadruple. ''It's been pretty exciting around here since Dvorak wrote that article,'' says a jubilant Polaris President John R. Leach Jr., who recently received an inquiry from a Dvorak reader in India.

Dvorak, like many of his colleagues, relishes his role as one of the reviewing elite. He writes two weekly columns and a handful of monthly ones that appear in eight publications, and he has something of a cult following. ''When Dvorak says something positive in a column, it gives the product a blessing,'' explains John Markoff, a former reviewer who now writes about technology for the San Francisco Examiner. Dvorak writes in colors as loud as his fire-engine-red Corvette convertible. ''Inside Track,'' his most popular column, is ''over-opinionated, designed to be addictive,'' Dvorak readily admits.


Erik Sandberg-Diment, software reviewer for The New York Times, takes a less iconoclastic approach. ''I'm not a true hacker. My interest is in programs that are useful,'' he says. From his farm in northern Connecticut, he writes 1,000-word columns that either deal with one product in depth or compare several in the same category. Sandberg-Diment, who works amid a wife, three children, 5 horses, 20 sheep, and 40 chickens, spends 50 hours a week testing software to find appropriate material.

Then there are reviewers who do their jobs just for fun. One of the best-known is Jerry Pournelle, the science fiction novelist. His closely read column, Computing at Chaos Manor, is named after his Southern California house and appears regularly in Byte. ''I like those little computers,'' he says. ''I love those little beasts.'' Pournelle compares his reviews to the hunting columns in a sporting magazine: informal, conversational, rambling, adventurous.

Software marketers court big-name reviewers aggressively. Last July, for example, Ashton-Tate Inc. launched an all-out effort to curry columnists' favor before unveiling its $695 integrated software program called Framework. The company offered to send technical personnel to inspect reviewers' computers to make sure Framework would function properly. The technicians even handed out their home phone numbers, just in case reviewers had further problems.

Despite all this, rave software reviews don't always mean a hit. Jacob Geller, chairman of Fox & Geller, knows that all too well. His company's Oz Management Control business program received lavish praise from the Times' Sandberg-Diment. But sales have been disappointing, and Geller is trying to sell the program to another company. ''That review was a sobering experience for us,'' he says. Now he is the first to admit that in the crowded software market, success depends on marketing muscle and word of mouth--not just a good review.


Copyright 1985 McGraw-Hill, Inc.