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Timing Is Something: PR and Tech Reviews

Yesterday, some other newspapers' tech columnists reviewed Microsoft's Photosynth site, a free Web service that generates interactive, 3-D panoramas from photos you upload.

When I saw those reviews, my first thought was "hmm, perhaps I should have gone with a Photosynth piece myself." Microsoft had given me every opportunity to try out the site on the same schedule as my competitors -- their PR reps gave me an in-person briefing at The Post's offices on August 4 and provided me with early access to the site.

I opted not to do that, thinking at first that Photosynth might make more sense as a blog post, not a column in its own right. I was also reluctant to try out this Web service -- or any other company's -- in a pre-release state; as recent events have shown, a site's scalability and performance issues may not surface when only a selected group of testers can play with it.

By the end of last week, deep packet inspection seemed a newsier item, and so I wrote about that instead (and have since received a lot less e-mail feedback than usual, so perhaps my news judgment was off).

Anyway, after seeing the headlines on the NYT and WSJ sites, I clicked over to the Photosynth site to check it out for myself and discovered, as many of you may have, that it was out of commission. An apologetic notice confessed that the site was "a little overwhelmed today" and would not allow any photo uploads "while we're reviving it."

Oops. Seeing that page -- which greeted would-be Photosynthers until late last night -- changed my opinion to something more like "Looks like I dodged a bullet here!" Or a more accurate assessment: "There but for the grace of God go I..." More honest yet: "I suppose my editor can't complain that much about me letting us get scooped on this."

This isn't the first time a well-publicized site has melted down in its public debut (though it has to be a little embarrassing to Microsoft, which has a little more resources to put into a new site than the average dot-com startup). These things happen. Still, as a reviewer you hate to send people to something they can't try.

But -- as ever! -- I could be wrong. So let's play a retrospective edition of Marc Fisher's You Be The Editor game: What would you have done, not knowing ahead of time if the Photosynth site would crash or not?

A. Reviewed it in its pre-release state;

B. Held off on that topic to write about deep packet inspection;

C. Written about some other subject altogether.

If you choose C, you have to say what the other subject would be! The comments are yours...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  August 22, 2008; 9:53 AM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: "Deep Packet Inspection" Means Deep Trouble
Next: Rekindling Interest in Amazon's E-Book Reader


Good for you for going with Choice B and writing about DPI. While Photosynth might be cool, DPI has more important implications, and you followed your journalist's instincts and wrote a good piece. Don't give into peer pressure.

Posted by: DL | August 22, 2008 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Good choice, Rob. Deep packet inspection is a real concern that more people should be aware of. People can find about Photosynth when their co-workers and relatives email them about it. Though it looks like the Photosynth site might still be down!

Posted by: William | August 22, 2008 12:28 PM | Report abuse

You made the right call, Rob. DPI is a public-policy issue that deserves some ink and paper. The rush to be first to review a new service is more important to editors than it is (or should be) to readers, and this scenario illustrates just one reason.

Posted by: Doug | August 22, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the commenters above.

Posted by: Lindemann | August 22, 2008 2:28 PM | Report abuse

What would I have done in your shoes Rob?

I think all your recent posts after my meltdown have been far less proponent of the Consumer Electronics Association as much of your writing had been culminating in that pro-Tim Westergren's Profit Margin spin doctoring you wrote earlier this week. How could I suggest you go differently? You're back on track.

Posted by: DCer | August 22, 2008 2:31 PM | Report abuse

There's tons of potential stories floating around out there... Ya gotta write what moves you (even if it's something about packets). Or what your editor demands. But no sense second guessing yourself. (: Oh yeah, looking at those Synths makes me a bit queasy.

Posted by: Dave Zatz | August 22, 2008 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Instead of some web service that has issues, how about looking over a beta copy of Hugin for windows, which is a very powerful panorama creation software that I have had success with

Posted by: Jason S | August 22, 2008 8:48 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I'm one of the three people who made the time to come out and show you Photosynth in Washington two weeks ago. I'm the project's architect, not a 'PR rep'. Deep packet inspection is a good thing to write about, no complaints there. However, I find it a bit odd of you to spin not having bothered to look at something so clearly novel and interesting as journalistic rigor. My 2c.

Posted by: Blaise | August 22, 2008 9:09 PM | Report abuse

I freind of mine emailed the link to Photosynth on August 9 of 2007. It worked great and I was quite impressed with the site. Can't say I'd use it but its really cool what they have going on there.

Posted by: huristm | August 23, 2008 8:34 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I'll ibid the "DPI article worked for me" and add a comment to the (possibly rightly grieved Blaise) that, based on what I've read to date, Photosynth may indeed be way cool, I have a hard time seeing how it's really that important to the Average Websurfin' Joe, just yet. Esp with the site in MobileMeMode and internet privacy an ongoing relevant concern.

Just my two bits.

Posted by: Bush -- not related | August 24, 2008 3:27 PM | Report abuse

I think DPI is a lot more important, and has a lot of pretty serious implications. Photosynth is a new toy, but sometimes I read the news to find out about, you know, more important stuff.

Posted by: jp | August 24, 2008 9:33 PM | Report abuse

News by definition is new. If this service qualified, you should have covered it. Any review could have been quickly followed with a blog post noting that the site wasn't responding to traffic. Your post above simply rationalized your failure to cover the beat.

Posted by: MD | August 24, 2008 10:00 PM | Report abuse

DPI was the right call imo, it's implications are nearly ubiquitous and it needs to be fleshed out in a column like yours for "tech aware but not expert" types like myself.

Posted by: Robert17 | August 25, 2008 3:54 AM | Report abuse

Hey Rob,

The in-text link to your previous post on DPI is broken. I wanted to read more because I don't know much about DPI -- though I'm inclined to agree with your call on covering it, regardless.

Posted by: LSHO | August 25, 2008 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Photosynth looks to be a fun application, but I think you called it exactly right, Rob, when you declined to review a pre-release, which could not have told us very much about how it works in practice. And, of course, DPI is a far more vital question, which may well come to affect all net users....


Posted by: M Henri Day | August 25, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Rob -

I think a lot of the comments are focusing on an either/or scenario. Either you wrote about DPI or you wrote about Photosynth.

However, an either/or scenario only makes sense if you have tested, played with, or researched both items. In this case you didn't, so I am not sure that the comparison is a valid (or perhaps useful?) one.

I recognize that there are only a certain number of hours in a day. One can only do so much. And that is fair. People understand that. I understand that.

I think that with the Photosynth piece that the story has been 'Microsoft crashes under weight of users'. Absolutely true - but I would be more interested in taking that a bit further.

Why did they crash under the weight of all the users? It was obviously much more popular than they had anticipated (they scaled 20X in 24hrs from what I understand). So did the people modeling the predicted number of users simply screw up, or was this way off the bell curve?

A follow-on to that is the following: when was the last time you reviewed a product from Microsoft that was, well, popular? Vista? Zune? Um, no.

I mean if this wasn't a virtual world overload, but a real-world storefront overload it would be big news. "Consumers line up around the block only to find out Photosynth sold-out when they get in the store".

Egad, almost Apple territory.

In any case (and in interest of full disclosure), I did demo Photosynth before it became public. I am not a journalist, but hey, it's a pretty fun technology and will push others forward. And if my 60+ year-old father thinks it's cool it must be...

My two cents.


Posted by: Andrew | August 25, 2008 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Well, I already had an understanding of DPI, having been among the first group of people to subscribe to gmail. (Hey, how do they know where I live?) The DPI article could have been more layman-like, that might account for the lesser amount of comments.

I was hoping you would combine Photosynth, with some other photoviewers/add-ons, like Cooliris/Piclens
and even Interclue, which seems to kill FF3 for me and made me run to Opera. While I added Cooliris to FF3 on my Mac at home, I couldn’t get it fly on pc. I tried it at home, but it doesn’t get much use.

Either way, I don’t get the purpose of Cooliris or Photosynth. I much rather use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements or Preview for off-line viewing.

Posted by: umm.huh | August 25, 2008 1:53 PM | Report abuse

What I don't understand is that I heard about Photosynth back in October 1997 and actually played-around with the application looking at all the nice picture of St. Marks Square in Venice Italy. I think that I heard about it on David Pogue's series that ran on Discovery HD Theatre, and a quick Google Desktop search of my Windows machine shows that I installed the Tech Preview version of Photosynth on my machines on October 3, 2007.

This begs the question: Why isn't this considered "Old News"?

Posted by: Jeff G. | August 25, 2008 11:22 PM | Report abuse

I read your column, I hope you will look at my web site. Few know what we do.

Seriously, can't you somehow get the Philadelphia Inquirer to carry your column?

Posted by: Brad Stanton | August 26, 2008 8:27 PM | Report abuse

Seriously, can't you somehow get the Philadelphia Inquirer to carry your column?

I read your column, I hope you will look at my web site. Few know what we do.

Posted by: Brad Stanton | August 26, 2008 8:28 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: nekin | August 30, 2008 1:20 PM | Report abuse

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