Real critics call them like they see them

April 18, 2015

Tom Henderson ViewpointHeaven help me: I’m a paid critic. I’m different from the sort of gushing-praiser, or mindless hater on Yelp. I get to research, test and objectively review some of the most advanced computing gear in the industry, year after year.

My editor has never swayed me to say anything; he just takes the results, edits the grammar and swear words, and posts them. They go to 85-plus countries, some to syndicated/translated IT websites.

Sometimes I can put a toothpick in the middle of the newly baked product and it comes out clean. On rare occasions, things might explode, or what might be considered an important feature doesn’t work or was left out at the last minute so as to meet deadlines.

Customers increasingly treat businesses and other organizations like this, too.

Products and services aren’t the only thing people rate online. Workplace quality and insufficient ratios of people, including women, older or non-Caucasians are just some of the things ending up on various filters.

I have trained, analytical eyes. Critics usually have them, too.

Investors—if they’re savvy—look at financials and a prospectus and organizational history to see if they want to invest. I know, crazy as it seems, they want a return on their capital. Products will be compared with the competition.

I do what’s called technical due diligence for investors. This requires me to metaphorically parachute into a hungry startup and attempt to discern whether its angel-investment-level approach has technical potential. Typically, the startup is scared to death of me. I call them as I see them.

There are critics that try to corner a market in criticism. They’ll latch onto a specific brand or brand segment and become instant pundits, minor pontiffs of their little corner of the world. They’re often elected to these spots by popularity, rather than long experience or other professional credentials. They’ll produce books about the latest stuff coming from popular, high-profile organizations—say Apple Computer. They’ll often receive products in advance of others because a vendor will want to control early “spin” on the next release of their widgetry.

I view these types of critics with jaundiced eyes.

Organizations become comparatively cold and calculating as to how they deal with critics. There are secret PR databases at Microsoft, VMware and others specifically on me, but I’m only one entry.

These are accompanied by tear sheets on what I’ve published/criticized/reviewed, my blogs, on their products and their competitors’ products. Emails I send with questions are included. They know that by ethics pledges, I can’t accept gifts of any but the meaningless kind. No free travel to anywhere.

They used to know my birthday, but no one sends birthday cards to critics anymore. (Maybe they do if you work for the New York Times; I don’t know.)

I’m told, long after the fact of a published review, that product managers are sometimes promoted or perhaps fired because of what I wrote about a product.

I’m just the messenger. The product is what it is. When I look at how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was handled from inception to passage to backlash to reformation to new PR agency, you need to remember to not shoot the messenger.

No amount of insulation stops a good critic. Trust me on this.•


Henderson is principal researcher of ExtremeLabs Inc., a Bloomington computer analysis firm. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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