Yesterday was Google I/O, the tech giant’s annual developer conference. It’s where Google thinkers, technology journalists, and the genius programmers who make it all possible commune and geek out over the pixelated (and actual) buffet that awaits. It’s also the poor man’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), the annual Apple event made famous by way of Steve Jobs’ puckish, turtleneck-clad theatrics, which left the whole world slavering for the newest iThing. But Steve is gone, as are his trademark presentation pyrotechnics. Google I/O, pushing incremental updates to Maps like it’s the second coming, is what we're left with.
Google makes up for its lack of technological drama with a dramatic amount of swag. Last year at I/O the company gave away over $1,000 worth of smartphones, tablets, and other assorted Google-branded electronics. In a way it makes sense—Google developers should have the devices they are programming for, and developers create lots of apps for free, for the benefit of all of us. It’s the least Google could do to support its development community. Besides, tickets to the event cost $900, and for small developers, it’s nice to get something back.
But Google isn’t really courting developers with events such as this; it’s courting the media. It wants its latest innovations blasted across the Internet's echo chambers. So this year at I/O, Google upped the ante, giving everyone in attendance a Chromebook Pixel—a laptop running Google’s own operating system, retailing for $1,299. It’s the equivalent of Apple handing everyone a MacBook Pro on the way out the door. It made headlines across the web. And it’s everything that’s wrong with tech reporting.
Technology events are not giveaways for Oprah’s favorite things—journalists don’t get to go home with bags full of expensive toys and then pretend to critically cover the companies that bribe them. As James Temple explains in The San Francisco Chronicle, tech writers will “tell you they're routinely offered pricey gift baskets and all manner of smart phones, software, tablets and computers, often with no obligation to return or write about them.” And last year, Brad Stone of Businessweek wrote that reporters at a Spotify launch party in San Francisco were treated to $300 bottles of tequila as parting gifts. It happens constantly. Of course most reporters don’t accept the gifts. But the casual relationship undermines the nature of serious technology reporting.
Yes, for the most part gadgets are fun and cool and what’s the harm? But Google—for instance—has a long history of invasive advertising practices that get into some very murky questions regarding our civil liberties. By assuming that the bloggers and journalists in attendance would accept such a lavish gift, Google appears deeply cynical. And the media comes off as profoundly clueless. Wired—being an old-school print rag first, presumably with actual standards of journalistic integrity—tweeted this:
— Wired (@wired) May 15, 2013
Will reporters really go after companies like Google as aggressively as they would otherwise if they are typing their stories on Chromebooks that Google gave them? I can’t answer that question because I’ve never been given a free computer. But I’ll let you know at next year’s I/O—I’m booking my ticket as soon as I can.