'The Kingmaker' abdicates: Mossberg is retiring

104 West CEO Patrick Ward reflects on the career of Walt Mossberg, his legacy, and their 25-year friendship.

Walt Mossberg (Image via his Twitter page)
Walt Mossberg (Image via his Twitter page)

I began working with Walt Mossberg, the venerable dean of the tech press corps and former Wall Street Journal "Personal Technology" columnist, almost 25 years ago.

My early encounters left me scratching my head over how to deal with him. He wouldn’t work with agency folks. He wrote column passages about my company’s products that started with, "Not quite as good, but still useful…"

Then, about 15 years ago, he wrote a positive column about my then client Webroot Software fledgling anti-spyware package, SpySweeper. The power he and his column wielded was fully exhibited. It changed a company and an industry and my opinion of a man who would, over the ensuing decade and half, become my friend.

Mossberg would bristle at that notion of his power, even though he was often regarded as the most prominent journalist in the tech industry. He could make or break a product. His relationship with Steve Jobs was legendary. His conference, the Code Conference, is by far the most sought-after event in the industry by its audience and speakers alike. His impact on the technology world cannot be overstated.

Mossberg wasn’t always a tech guy. He started his career covering the car business, a Rhode Island boy who found himself matriculating from Columbia University’s School of Journalism to the Wall Street Journal bureau in Detroit.  He covered the State Department for the paper during the Reagan Administration. When he decided to make the stunning move to become the paper’s principal tech columnist, then Secretary of State James A. Baker was so incredulous he had Mossberg tailed to prove it. People consoled him on the street thinking he had been somehow demoted.

That column became the chronicle of an industry in the throes of important maturation.  Consider this: over the course of the column under his byline, Mossberg helped introduce the world to the Windows PC, the laptop, inkjet printers, the world wide web, email, online commerce, the iPod and iTunes, the mobile phone and the tablet, plus myriad other products and technologies. Mossberg explained all of that in simple, precise prose. He never contended he was a technologist. He was a writer and a reporter, trying every Thursday (and later Tuesday, too) to put these often-complex ideas and products through his inimitable filter to help consumers understand them better and make good decisions.

And those columns were coveted by every company and feared by many. His first column on the iPhone called the device "a beautiful and breakthrough handheld computer." His verbal altercation with an unhappy CEO in the Las Vegas airport is famous and a central anecdote to a Wired piece that called him "The Kingmaker."

He could be tough, but he could (and can) also be just as sensitive and capable of great amity. He loves sports, especially his adored Red Sox. He is sentimental: his office is filled with mementoes. The arrival of his first grandchild was momentous. And he cherishes traveling with his wife.

Last year at the 13th Code Conference I attended, I was backstage while my then client Jack Dorsey, the founder and CEO of Twitter, was on stage. Mossberg, who was backstage with me, remarked that Dorsey – along with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who had spoken earlier in the conference – was part of the new generation of tech leaders. He said that his generation of Jobs and Gates was leaving the spotlight. It was the first time I had ever noted any contemplation of the end of his career.

My friend and colleague, Mossberg, announced last week that he is retiring later this spring. I can’t say I am surprised, but I am saddened. I know my friendship will endure, but it is a milepost in both journalism and the tech industry. Technology has changed so fast and so much in the last 25 years, but Mossberg has been a constant. That, too, changes this year. The industry owes him well-deserved gratitude. But I know that he would prefer to have the thanks of his readers, because, at his core, with a stub of a good cigar in his teeth and ink under his fingernails, Walter S. Mossberg is a reporter.

Patrick Ward is CEO of 104 West

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