Daniel Lyons Cries Wolf: The Real Bill Gates Behind the Fake Steve Jobs
December 23rd, 2007
Daniel Eran Dilger
Forbes’ Dan Lyons, author of the Fake Steve Jobs blog, decided it would be entertaining to parody the unplugging of ThinkSecret by pretending his own blog was under threat from Apple. Except that in order to do that, he had to stop pretending to be FSJ and start pretending that the real Steve Jobs was threatening him. That’s where he left the world of parody and reentered the familiar territory of lucrative scandal.
Too Witty By Half.
It is unthinkably unlikely to suggest that Apple would sue FSJ for libel, so his straight-faced insistence that the company already has threatened to do so puts him in the odd position of the boy who cried wolf, in a location where there are no wolves. Having already parlayed his FSJ schtick into book, the stunt also calls to mind another idiom about jumping a different sort of carnivorous animal toward the end of one’s career.
FSJ’s single punchline has been tediously stretched out like a Saturday Night Live sketch to the point where its more awkwardly embarrassing than funny. Perhaps its time to take a cue from Bill Watterson and Sacha Baron Cohen and lay it to rest like Calvin and Borat before things amble on into a Larry Craig or Britney Spears situation. FSJ might plausibly recommend the same from Lyons, were they not the same person.
That disconnect between talk and walk is familiar territory for Lyons. He’s best known as a witty blogger wielding a poisoned pen who earlier ridiculed bloggers of all stripes from his business pulpit at Forbes, expressing breathlessly across the front page of the November 14, 2005 Attack of the Blogs issue: “They destroy brands and wreck lives. Is there any way to fight back?” That type of unintentional humor is hard to top.
When the New York Times fingered Lyon as the writer of FSJ, it was revealed that his wit wasn’t exactly splashed around equally. “Mr. Lyons clearly used the Fake Steve persona to further some of his own interests and positions,” the Times noted. “For example, articles in other business publications and their journalists were a frequent target of criticism from Fake Steve, while Forbes got off comparatively easy.” The subjects Lyons cast the most derision upon are targets of Bill Gates: Linux, Google, Apple, and particularly the personality of Steve Jobs. That’s no coincidence.
The Man Who Knows How To Get Paid.
Shortly before being outed, FSJ began a promotional deal with Wired Magazine, which paid him to talk about Wired and suggest to his readers why they should read it. After Forbes caught wind of the deal, Lyons had to drop Wired as a sponsor. As Lyons anonymously reported, “I’m weighing a few different new deals and wanted to be free of any ties [with Wired] while I negotiate with new partners. I do miss the money though, I must admit.”
After the Times reported Lyons’ identity as FSJ, Forbes was compelled to stand by him as his new corporate sponsor. Of course, that doesn’t mean Forbes and Wired were FSJ’s only sources of support. He also engaged in shameless promotion of another business interest, which went back further in time prior to Lyon’s FSJ gig. Again, that interest was the business of Bill Gates and Microsoft.
The most obvious example was Lyons’ unwavering message about the dangers of Linux, the crackpots behind open source, and the safety of clinging to Microsoft. While Lyons now downplays the documented fact that he spent years ‘on message’ as a Linux detractor, he was actually one of the primary proponents of SCO in its insane legal circus threatening to sue any company that used Linux.
Lyons’ Anti-Linux SCO Support.
I earlier documented Lyon’s interplay with another paid-to-say shill, the infamous Rob Enderle, who built his career spouting exactly what Microsoft wanted him to say every time he ever said anything. With Linux being the most pestilent thorn in the side of Microsoft in the business servers market, that frequently required Enderle to say bad things about Linux at regular intervals.
Microsoft’s hatred of Linux also provided an opportunity for Lyons to benefit himself, and Lyons played right into it, branding Linux users as isolationist kooks, their software as problematic junk, its corporate supporters as bumbling idiots, and all efforts toward rivaling commercial software as a communist fallacy soon to topple under the pressure exerted by SCO. In the pages of Forbes, Lyons regularly wrote articles such as:
- “Linux’s Hit Men,” a 2003 article looking at “the dark side of the free software movement,” where the evil hit man was played by Eben Moglen, a Columbia Law School professor who serves as pro bono counsel for the Free Software Foundation. Moglen’s dirty work? Insisting that companies who use free software abide by its license agreement. Others might describe Moglen as an articulate, intelligent hero.
- Real panic set in in 2004, when Lyons’ “Linux Loyalists Leery” described the danger of considering Linux in a world where SCO was making threats. He wove in quotes from business users voicing warnings such as, “The marketplace has changed significantly in regard to Linux. I guess I’d describe my position as cautious enthusiasm,” and “It’s like walking around in the woods during deer season [to use Linux],” and “If these [Linux] companies are going to create a price point that is significant enough that they are approaching the same pricing model as the innovation premium, why pay a premium for imitation when I can pay a premium and get innovation?” ‘Getting innovation’ was explicitly equated with buying software from Microsoft.
- The threat Linux posed to Windows was touched on directly in 2004’s “Kill Bill,” which vilified IBM for supporting Linux and exposed its devious intent as “a broader agenda–undermining Bill Gates’ company.” Imagine the nerve of a company working to compete against its rivals! Lyons presented it as an immoral affront to decency, as if lending support to Linux were on the level of funding Al Queda.
- In “IBM Refuses To Indemnify Linux Users,” Lyons had earlier publicized the idea that IBM wasn’t issuing a blanket indemnification of Linux users from SCO lawsuits. He cited George Weiss of the Gartner Group as saying, “Nobody in the Linux community has stepped up to protect the user.” Of course, the best way to empower SCO would be to pressure IBM to spread around legal promises that SCO could then use to start thousands of frivolous lawsuits, consuming IBM’s legal attention rather than having to fight it directly in a clear case with the world watching.
- However, in a followup article called “Linux Scare Tactics,” Lyons ridiculed the efforts of an independent group hoping to sell Linux insurance to indemnify users from the risk of patent lawsuits. He associated the group with the entire community, and collectively referred to the situation as “fear, uncertainty, and doubt… from Linux zealots themselves.” So it was bad for Linux to be threatened by SCO, bad IBM didn’t promise there was no threat, and bad to try to offer threat insurance. Was there any possible recourse against SCO apart from admitting guilt for crimes that were never committed?
- Lyons’ “Is Linux for Losers?” helped cement Forbes’ reputation as the source for anti-Linux crowing; Lyons’ barbed attacks were joined and echoed by Forbes’ Lisa DiCarlo in articles such as “Why You Won’t Be Getting A Linux PC” and “The Limitations Of Linux,” with all of the various anti-Linux articles interlinked in a sidebar headed “Linux @ Work” for easy access.
It seems there wasn’t anything that anyone associated with Linux could do right, and nothing that Microsoft could ever do wrong. It almost appeared that Microsoft was orchestrating a clever campaign of talking points, but that would require collusion between think tanks like Gartner, commercial journalists, and a wide swath of independent bloggers. That couldn’t possibly happen could it?
Ready People for Microsoft’s People Ready.
This year, Microsoft did just that, more than once. In the Acer Ferrari Laptop Scandal, prominent bloggers were given free laptops with Vista that subtly demanded favorable coverage of Vista in exchange for a couple thousand dollars of hardware, “no strings attached.” Only after the gifts were publicly outed did some of them send the laptop back or give them away. Microsoft sent out letters of explanation that facilitated the synergy: “we believe in the power of community.”
Or perhaps the power of green, and not the renewable kind. Why can’t Microsoft just buy ads like everyone else? Does it really need a misinformation smokescreen seeded by influential bloggers in order to sell Windows Vista? And why does this remind me of the Rodney Dangerfield joke about his mom tying the pork chop around his neck to get the dog to play with him?
The second example was a subliminal whisper campaign designed by banner ad company Federated Media. ValleyWag called out a variety of bloggers for taking money to casually repeat the “conversational marketing” jingles in Microsoft’s pay-for-say ad program, particularly for dropping the phrase “People Ready” into casual conversation to generate artificial buzz. Among the ready bloggers were:
- Michael Arrington of Techcrunch
- Om Malik of Gigaom
- Paul Kedrosky and Matt Marshall of Venture Beat
- Fred Wilson the “blogger-investor”
Missing from those names was Dan Lyons, but FSJ was among the first bloggers casually dropping “People Ready” back in January, suggesting it as a “new slogan IBM is cooking up for the year ahead. ‘People Ready’? Nope, taken. ‘On Demand’? Er, tried that. ‘Open Your Source and Bend Over’? Nice.”
Painting IBM as bumbling fools, vilifying open source development, dropping Microsoft talking points, and mocking Steve Jobs, all at the same time? I’d say “priceless,” but I doubt that is the correct word to use. Throughout the year, FSJ regularly directed attention to whatever Microsoft wanted people talking about, from Windows Vista to the Zune to the Surface, while describing executives at Apple and Google as silly morons. Conspicuously missing was much mention of Bill Gates, particularly anything unflattering. Instead, lots of softball pitches.
These Are Not The Jobs You’re Looking For.
For example, in August Lyons wrote as FSJ about a Microsoft blogger admitting that Vista has problems, and congratulated him for his candor. “I suspect this really is the Microsoft coder writing this, and honestly, if so, it’s a good sign for Microsoft. The old Microsoft was full of guys like this, guys who said what they believed and didn’t give a shit what you thought and if it cost them their jobs, well, what the fuck. That, more than anything else, is what Microsoft was all about in the early days and it was the biggest reason that Microsoft succeeded.”
That’s not very funny at all, nor very Steve Jobsian. Sounds like some serious message passing in an emotional envelope. And exactly when was Microsoft full of can-do, getter done, bring it on honesty? One would think a professional heartstring puller, fact massager, and quotation gerrymandering expert like Lyons could deliver something less sappy and transparent than that.
Prior to returning to Apple, Jobs actually described Microsoft by saying “they don’t think of original ideas and they don’t bring much culture into their product […] I have no problem with their success, they’ve earned their success for the most part. I have a problem with the fact that they just make really third rate products.” The real Jobs make FSJ sound like a emasculated ninny who confuses weak profanity for powerful phrasing. Is FSJ a parody of Jobs, or just a saccharine layer of frosting on top of the same old Microsoft-enamoured cake Lyons has long baked up at Forbes?
If you’re getting the impression FSJ is Bill Gates’ ventriloquist dummy, an attempt to counter the ‘frustrated businessman’ PC character played by John Hodgeman in Apple’s ‘Get a Mac’ ads that Gates finds so irritating, a way to seed Microsoft-friendly ideas about the dangers of Linux in a post-SCO world, and a way to publicize Gates’ efforts to compare with Jobs at Apple, then perhaps it’s no coincidence that Gates had carefully prepared his line at All Things Digital to say “Well, first, I want to clarify: I’m not Fake Steve Jobs.”
Was he trying to sound less uptight and wooden, or just calling attention to a blog carefully on-message with his talking points in an effort to extend FSJ’s fifteen minutes of fame so that he’d get his money’s worth?
What a Racket!
As Lyons himself noted earlier in his “Attack of the Blogs” missive for Forbes, “The combination of massive reach and legal invulnerability makes corporate character assassination easy to carry out. Dry treatises on patent law and trade policy don’t drive traffic (or ad sales) for bloggers and hosts; blood sport does.”
The hypocrisy involved in vilifying the comments of non-Forbes sanctioned writers, only to become the world’s leading corporate character assassin was apparently just Lyons getting started. Now imagine a “blood sport” scenario where Lyons takes an issue from the headlines and tries to use it to gain even more attention for himself.
The issue of course, is ThinkSecret, a rumor blog FSJ ridiculed by posting the photo of the college student who wrote it and asking readers to insult the kid with captions. Apple had earlier brought ThinkSecret to court to demand that it reveal its sources for obtaining internal documents restricted under NDA.
The EFF, defending other rumor bloggers but not ThinkSecret, built its case around the defense that the sites didn’t have to reveal their sources because they were performing a valuable service of journalism in propagating information, and forcing them to reveal who broke their NDA with Apple would create a slippery slope where a future evil could demand that the courts expose the identity of those who ratted on some issue of importance.
While ThinkSecret had its own legal counsel, it also appears ThinkSecret was just copying from other sites to fill out its news. Over the last several months, ThinkSecret’s RSS feed has served as essentially a time delayed version of AppleInsider. ThinkSecret also published its own inventions that were subsequently not very accurate, and engaged in more willfully flagrant NDA violations such as its regularly obtaining developer builds of Leopard (commonly available on file sharing sites) and publishing screenshots of everything. So it appears ThinkSecret didn’t really have any actual sources to rat on.
Since ThinkSecret is also the blog of a college kid who had grown tired of maintaining it, the fact that its author chose to close down but “didn’t have to reveal its sources” was enough for the EFF to claim victory. Apple learned that it couldn’t go after rumor sites to find internal leaks, and will now be more restrictive of NDA material so that more developers who need it now won’t be able to as readily. Which means developers and therefore end users lose first, Apple got a minor setback, the rumor sites were largely exonerated, and NDA violators were the clear winners.
Lyons grasped upon the idea of Apple “closing down” ThinkSecret to suggest the comical idea that Apple was now offering an amnesty program for bloggers. “Highly ethical and unbiased journos like Goatberg, Smurfy Pogue and Daniel Eran Dilger obviously are not eligible to participate. But the rest of you scumbags? Drop a dime. Let’s talk.”
The Joke Stops Here.
As typical, Lyons wrote up a funny parody laced with lines like “Strike a blow for freedom of the press,” wringing every penny of out the idea. However, in the days since, Lyons dropped the parody, stepped through the third wall, and began striking emotional chords with his bamboozled audience, claiming that he himself was under legal threat from Apple, and that the real Steve Jobs was upset about the Fake Steve Jobs, much as how the real Bill Gates was so angry about John Hodgeman’s PC character that he stormed out of an interview when asked about it.
However, the real Steve Jobs doesn’t share much in common emotionally with the real Bill Gates. When asked about Lyons’ FSJ impersonation at All Things Digital earlier this year, Jobs said, “I have read a lot of the Fake Steve Jobs posts, and I think they’re funny. But I don’t know who it is.” In contrast, Gates’ parallel response to comments about the Get a Mac ads was bristled and irritated.
When asked about Lyons’ latest spoof series of being legally challenged by Apple, the real Steve Jobs responded directly to panicked users’ emails, “I think this is a joke, and I think you fell for it.”
Lyons’ accusations against Apple may have been shrugged off by the real Steve Jobs, but not by Windows Enthusiasts who latched onto the idea that “People Ready Lyons” was being harassed by the big bad Apple, even if it was a complete fabrication. It appears they enjoy being fooled so much that they no longer realize the difference between reality and marketing. This is the same group that thinks the Zune is “alternative counterculture” because it comes from a monopoly pulling in $50 billion in revenues rather than from Apple with half as much revenue.
Why Microsoft’s Zune is Still Failing
Winter 2007 Buyer’s Guide: Microsoft Zune 8 vs iPod Nano
Forbes vs Apple.
They also cried for Lyons, who represented himself as a David facing the Goliath legal team of Apple, a team of litigators so difficult they amicably dropped their suit against ThinkSecret, settled with the Burst patent trolls for far less than Microsoft, cooperatively settled with Creative over an iPod patent attack and made the rival company an accessories partner, settled with a patent troll to acquire a music player patent that pundits said would supposedly be used to extort money from other companies although that never happened, and defend the company from a variety of sensationalized attacks from the money grubbing Greenpeace to greedy investors who want money back from the very employees who have worked hard to make those investors rich.
However, Lyons is the real antagonist here. He courts the interest of the Apple community and feeds them prepared statements from Microsoft, attributes bad motives to everything Apple does, seeds contempt for open development, and then congratulates Microsoft for recognizing that it makes bad products. But FSJ isn’t the only message Lyons is publishing.
Under his own name, Lyons overtly celebrates Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM and its exploding rental downloads, telling users that the overpriced Media Center is a much better alternative to Apple’s iTunes video, which 91% of the market is currently choosing. Lyons is certainly entitled to his opinion, but shouldn’t he point out that he has that opinion because Microsoft sent him a free box of its wares to play with along with instructions about what to say about it? Is it wrong to talk about the money involved?
Lyons also recently portrayed Apple as the new “Big Brother” and insisted it was taunting its customers in a way that had resulted in users arming themselves with “pitchforks and torches” to take out a monster perhaps more vile than even Microsoft. Incidentally, that’s the new message to watch for: any pundit announcing that “Apple is the new Microsoft,” “Leopard is the new Vista,” “open source is the new proprietary,” “free market competition is the new monopoly,” and “up is the new down” might not be trustworthy.
Of course, as long as Bill Gates has the money, expect to keep hearing the money talk.
Forbes’ Fake Steve Jobs Is Also Fake On Apple
Forbes Prints Insanely Self Serving Attack on iTunes by MediaNet CEO Alan McGlade
Apple TV Digital Disruption at Work: iTunes Takes 91% of Video Download Market
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