I Don't Do Reviews
by Steve Wood
December 12, 1999
How's that for starting a column with a big fat lie. Sure, I do reviews--lots of them. Just looking at the past column list that sometimes trails Busman's Holiday postings will reveal reviews of a sort of OmniPage Pro, Enigma for Macintosh, and others. I guess what I should have said is that I rarely do whole column reviews of just one product. Or, maybe that I just wish I didn't do reviews.
Like many Mac columnists, I get a good number of emails asking me to review a reader's favorite product. Several weeks ago, I even put out a call to the Macintosh education community to send me their favorite "cheap or free" education applications for my Teacher Tools series on View from the Classroom. Generally, such a posting results in some applications of which I was totally unaware or had simply forgotten. It's a fantastic way to learn about some rare or old software that still works and serves a positive function. Although most readers' emails are usually polite, some can get pretty demanding. They simply can't understand why I haven't seen the light and written a 1500 word review filled with superlatives concerning their favorite Macintosh software product.
Let me explain what is a difficult situation for me and for any columnist. First, I don't take freebies. Accepting a free copy of a piece of software or even a hardware item pretty seriously damages your objectivity, if not your credibility. If you don't believe that one, check the reviews in some of the Mac magazines and websites of products you KNOW are junk or have a Himalayan learning curve that receive at least a passing grade review!
See! It took about 5 seconds before you went, "Oh, yeah! I remember that review in or on MacWhatever that said SuperApp was great and easy to use. It repeatedly crashed my Mac, and I never could figure it out." "Nuff" said?
Having decided not to take freebies, that leaves the options of reviewing things to which I already own a license (which I do once in a blue moon), buying the app or hardware for far more than I'll ever receive in use or compensation for the column, or going the Warez route of finding a bootleg version and a bootleg serial number ("Of course, I've never done that!" he says as his Pinocchio nose grows right out of sight.). Sometimes a copy of an app is provided for evaluation only, to be deleted after the review, but that really begins to push the credibility issue.
So...what do you do? Or rather, what do I do?
I generally choose doors number one and three. Since I'm a public educator, option two isn't really viable. But also, since I'm a public educator who is the school's unofficial Mac file and print server administrator and Mac lab techie, I have access to a fair number of site and single user license software titles. It also gives me access to some classic Mac hardware. (Can you tell this has been a good hardware day? Otherwise, the above would read something like "antiquated Apple junk":-)
Second on my "I don't do reviews" list is that a reader's suggestion frequently turns out to be an app that I think stinks or is nearly useless to me for what I do on a Mac. If I don't regularly use something, I'm not going to write and let on as if I do. If it really stinks, often it's just easier to say nothing at all. In the realm of shareware, this often happens, but the app/extension/control panel often matures with later releases. Then I think, "Gee I'm glad I didn't write about X-product when it was new and really stunk." Stinkers from large software houses or large, greedy computer hardware companies are not accorded the same consideration, however.
The third item on my "I don't do reviews" list is best explained by the highly edited email exchange below. This recent request for a review came from a company representative. No evaluation copy was offered, but that's okay from my perspective. What really got me was the response I received when I explained that the application didn't fit the parameters of the column, and that I really couldn't do the program justice in a review, but had handed the project off to someone more qualified.
I don't know why, but my dander begins to rise whenever I read an email from a company that begins, "IMHO" (In my humble opinion). They've already let you know that they are sure you've messed up by omitting their SuperApp software. And yes, I've changed the names to give some anonymity and also to make a few snide points. While "SuperApp Lite" really is free, it's pretty well defanged. SuperApp Expensive, however, retails for just $49, as long as you don't use it to make anything to sell to anyone else. If you do, then its price quietly slips up to $500!
"That should make them happy," I think. I really don't know their program all that well. The reason I don't know their program all that well is that I really have tried it and just don't like its interface! Gee, I wonder if they'd like a 1500 word rip of their product on the World Wide Web? Thinking I've done my good deed for the day...week...year...I am surprised to receive the following perplexing, somewhat petulant response:
We could quibble about whether SuperApp Lite is really free, or just barely above a demo in usefulness, but I'm glad he understands and we're going to be buddies. Oops! Spoke too soon!
Huh? When a outfit sets you up by asking for mention or a review and then doesn't let you in on a soon-to-be-released version, that's just plain playing dirty. It's probably safe to say at this point that my next mention of any SuperApp Corporation product will be scheduled somewhere between the distant future and "when hell freezes over."
The last item on my "I don't do reviews" list is really pretty petty. Before I even state it, I should point out that there are some notable exceptions. Most of the companies whose items I mention in a column don't even know I'm reviewing their product. Some probably never even see the posting. Some won't respond to inquiries concerning a product, only to take exception later if there is, in their humble opinion, some kind of mild to harsh criticism for any limitation or problem I have noted with their product or company. Generally, I never hear from entities that have had their product favorably reviewed! That's okay, though, as long as I got my money's worth from their product.
So forgive me if I don't spend $XXX buying your favorite application, or countless hours learning to use it effectively, and several weeks developing an informed and objective review of it. I tend to write about what I use daily. Occasionally, I write about something new and truly different. I try to avoid writing about products that I don't know well, or that I have a prejudice against because of previous products or actions of the company.
Years ago when I was a newlywed (the first time:-), we invited our new neighbors over for dinner. We were living in the beautiful foothills of the Appalachians at the time, but being true Hoosiers, wanted to provide an Indiana summer eating delicacy, sweet corn. I hunted long and hard for some fresh corn that day, as East Tennessee isn't exactly a major producer of that crop. At dinner that evening, one of the guests remarked, "Whatever you paid for this sweet corn, you paid too much!" While we politely went on with dinner conversation, we omitted the speaker from future dinner guest lists.
In the computer industry, we seem to be expected to keep inviting rude dinner guests (bad software, hardware, customer service, and/or rude, pushy personnel) back to our dinner table and say nice things about them.
Shame on us if we do!
Update: Andy Ihnatko sent me a polite response and protest to some of my comments above. He also graciously has allowed me to share them with you in A Note from Andy.
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©1999 Steven L. Wood