Joel on Bribes

Almost anyone that follows software development blogs will have stumbled across Joel Spolsky and many refer to his blog posts as some kind of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Software World. He recently weighs in on the whole bloggers accepting gifts from vendors debate that is making bloggers draw lines in the sand and is on the side that disagrees that bloggers should accept such gifts.

Joel Spolsky is wrong.

The whole thing boils down to bribes. A bribe is a secret agreement that is simultaneously advantages and disadvantages to both parties. Accept money secretly to promote a product and both you and the other party gain; they get a positive review while you have a bit more dosh, yet if either side breaks the agreement both of you lose, their product is seen as so poor it can’t stand on it’s own while your reputation is in the toilet. Secrecy is key to a bribe, without it there is no leverage, no incentive. The question is, what is left if you remove the concept of threat from an offer like Microsoft’s?

If there is a public exchange of product you could say that the one accepting the offer is only accepting it to get something for free. The interesting point here is that by wanting it they are already endorsing the product. Case in point, I’ve been offered free AOL online service more times than I care to remember but I’ve never once taken it because I don’t care for AOL. On the other hand I’ve been offered free pints of Guinness at various “Believer” events and I’ve taken each one gladly, of course I would have also paid for them.

You could also argue that a person may lose their objectivity, that they may feel a certain obligation to be nicer than they normally would have. First, someone that alters their opinion because of a free laptop is not really someone you should be listening to in the first place or they really didn’t have much of an opinion to start with. Second, there are a quite a few people that are already starting their reviews from a non-objective place, whether that’s pro or anti-Microsoft. Personally just to get me to try Visual Basic again you’d have to put a 30-year bottle of Balvenie on the table along with a full box of Cubans. I’m sure Visual Basic is actually a great language now with .NET but I’m definitely NOT objective about it and I have no incentive to try to look past my bias.

Lastly, without leverage, there is no way Microsoft can truly affect a blogger. What can they do? Never send the blogger more free stuff that they didn’t ask for in the first place? They can’t hurt or take anything away from the blogger, all the blogger can do is end up back where they started.

This laptop give-away is nothing more than the free samples they give you when you wander CostCo or the free vials of cologne you get in the store. There are no back-alley deals, no hidden handshakes, no threats of leg-breaking or public exposure. This is basic marketing 101. I can’t help but think that the people that make the biggest deal over this are those that fear that they themselves could easily fall prey to being swayed. I gladly accept free samples of Sara Lee cakes at CostCo, doesn’t mean I’m ever going to buy a single one of them.