Free as in beer, books, and laptops

“Hey, buddy, want a free laptop?” Assuming it was being offered by a legitimate store, and not from the back of a nondescript pickup truck parked behind the local mall, a lot of people would presumably say, “well, duh, sure!” Or would they?

A question that’s buzzing ’round the blogosphere is whether it’s right for companies like AMD and Microsoft to give, and/or for bloggers to accept, such free-as-in-beer laptops with Vista installed. Presumably AMD hopes that the bloggers will like the hardware and write about it so that other people will hear how great it is and want AMD-based laptops too. Presumably Microsoft hopes that the bloggers will like Vista and write about it so that other people will hear how great it is and want Vista too.

Robert Scoble thinks it’s “an awesome idea.” On the flip side, Joel Spolsky thinks it’s “ethically indistinguishable from bribery” and points out some interesting consequences. Me, I just love a chance to test the value of a potential principle derived from analyzing one situation by seeing how well it extends to similar situations. After all, if two questions X and Y are of the same kind, though perhaps different in degree, then an answer that’s true for X should also be true for Y. (If cannonballs fall downward when released, so should watermelons.)

So consider book publishers:

When a new book comes out, the publisher routinely mails out free copies to as many potential reviewers as they can possibly think of. Depending on the book, you could think of it as dead-tree spam. Anyone who writes for any moderately relevant media outlet that some potential book purchaser might read is a target liable to be deluged. Yes, publishers give those $50 books away for free, to the point where I’ve long ago had to ask publishers to PLEASE STOP SENDING ME BOOKS WITHOUT ASKING FIRST (er, sorry, that caps lock key gets jammed sometimes). You can find books in print by Scoble, by Spolsky, and by me — and I’m sure all of our publishers routinely give away free copies of our new books to potential reviewers, hoping that making them available will increase the chances of getting a good review (as opposed to, say, no review at all if the potential reviewer misses the book entirely in the avalanche of new titles clamoring for their attention).

Sending free books to potential reviewers is a common practice. Readers seem to like it, because reading the buzz helps them to find out about new books that might interest them. On the other hand, if Spolsky is right, should we view “free books!” as an attempt to unfairly manipulate the buzz, an attempt which furthermore could cast a shadow of doubt on all reviews and reviewers, bloggers or otherwise?

So consider some variants of the question: Is it ethical for a vendor of

  • books
  • software
  • hardware
  • any product

to give away free products to potential reviewers, hoping to generate coverage?

Of course, the product costs vary; (most) laptops are more expensive than (most) books. But those are differences in degree, not differences in kind. If you think the price point matters, then what is the price boundary between “fair gift” and “bribery,” and why?

I won’t try to say what The Answer is; everyone needs to decide what their own answer will be, and act accordingly. I’m just observing that a consistent answer should apply well to all of these situations, including the “any product” general case.

What do you think, Robert and Joel?

Disclosure and disclaimers

Whereas the current tempest is about AMD-based machines for bloggers, I’m writing this on a free machine I was given (a) by a different vendor and (b) for a different reason. The machine I’m using now is an Intel quad-core machine that Intel gave me under the same “try it out, let us know what you think” conditions, because I’m a member of a Microsoft team whose software they presumably want to work well on Intel hardware. Both AMD and Intel routinely supply free machines for this purpose to various Microsoft teams. For the record, a few months ago AMD offered me a laptop just like the ones being talked about in the current tempest, but I turned it down because I already had an adequate laptop and had no use for another one.

Unlike the current tempest about machines given in hopes of garnering positive reviews, the machines supplied to internal Microsoft teams are presumably not given in hopes that we’ll blog about it (the vast majority of the recipients aren’t bloggers or other writers), but rather to make sure we develop and test our future software products on their hardware so that the software will be likely to work well on that hardware.

Extra question for bonus points: Is it ethical for a {book|software|hardware|other} vendor to give away free products to potential value-add third parties, hoping to encourage add-ons that work well with their core product?

I’m a Microsoft employee, but I don’t speak for Microsoft or even particularly care that it’s one of the names involved in the original question that I’m now generalizing. I’m interested in the question for its own sake, and I’m glad that Scoble and Joel have posted thoughtful comments on this topic.

P.S.: Like I said, Intel didn’t give me this machine because I’m a blogger. But since we’re already having this discussion, and because I am in fact a blogger, and I am at this very moment blogging, and I feel like saying that I do like this Intel quad-core machine, I’ll say so: I like it. Thanks, Intel. It’s a great, snappy machine. Oh, and its runs Vista just fine, and I like Vista too (well, except that Vista won’t run Civilization 4 well, but that’s another story…).

9 thoughts on “Free as in beer, books, and laptops

  1. I think the more importent question is will the gift manipulate the bloggers opinion in a way that will benifet the gift giver, thus creating a bribe. I would have to say that if a company where to give me a laptop that did not work I would write about it, and if a company gave me a laptop that worked I would write about it. So really it depends on the person, and how honorable they are.

  2. Herb, I disagree with your argument that free books and free laptops differ only by degree and not by kind. With books, if the thing being reviewed (the content) is bad, the thing (the book) has no inherent value. If I get a free bad book to review from a publisher, I feel no obligation to the publisher because they have given me something of no value. Not so with laptops. Microsoft is giving away an expensive piece of hardware so people can review the software. It’s as if a car stereo company wanted you to review their latest stereo, so they gave you one — in a new car!
  3. (no name) is right there, laptops and books do differ by kind.
    1. With respect to reviewers and bloggers, laptops are a special kind of product. The laptop itself can help the reviewer or blogger do her job. This creates a possible dependancy of the reviewer on the product, unlike in the case of for example a stereo or a book.
    2. Unlike media such as books or movies, laptops or stereos usually have some value even if the review result is negative.
    3. Laptops, as long as they work at all, are useful and valuable beyond the time required to review them. The same goes for any other product that is not ‘consumed’. You may reread a book, but you won’t read it over and over again. Music is between those extremes (but a CD is usually by far not as valueable as a laptop). That’s why review copies typically bear a "review copy, not for sale" marker.
    4. I would normally expect a manufacturer to ask for a product to be given back after the review results are published. For books or other media, this would not be economical, as the reviewed, used media is of little value to the manufacturer. For products such as laptops, the value of a reviewed item can be expected to be about the same for the manufacturer as for the reviewer.

  4. (no name) wrote: "Microsoft is giving away an expensive piece of hardware so people can review the software. It’s as if a car stereo company wanted you to review their latest stereo, so they gave you one — in a new car!" As I pointed out, despite the blogosphere’s focus on viewing this exclusively with a Microsoft slant, AMD are presumably also hoping for good reviews of their hardware (the same hardware they also offered to me for non-review use). To me, it seems more like if a car stereo company and a car company wanted you to review their latest car stereo and low-noise car, so they teamed up to give reviewers that combination, with both companies hoping for good reviews of their products. Teaming up makes sense; after all, the car stereo won’t sound nearly as good in an old Ford Escort, just as Vista won’t have all features such as Aero available on older hardware, and being among the first to work well with a high-profile new stereo/OS that gets a lot of press will help the car’s/laptop’s image and hopefully its sales. That’s just my impression… your mileage may vary (so to speak).
    Rainer pointed out that "review copies typically bear a ‘review copy, not for sale’ marker." I’ve never received a reviewer copy of a book that had any labeling on it; it’s always just the book like you’d see it at Barnes & Noble. (I do sometimes get pre-publication galleys when I’m involved in internal publisher review cycles, but that’s a different situation.)
    Rainer also wrote: "For products such as laptops, the value of a reviewed item can be expected to be about the same for the manufacturer as for the reviewer." That view surprises me; "used" or "refurbished" or "demo model" always means a price discount, and I’d be surprised if the manufacturer could legally sell it as new, or if you could sell it on eBay for the same price as a new (why wouldn’t someone just buy a truly new machine from the manufacturer directly for the same price?). It’s the same reason why a car automatically loses some percentage of its value the minute you drive it off the lot, even if you sell the vehicle the next day.
  5. (no name)’s point was about the perceived value of a gift and the sense of obligation that valuable gifts create. Herb, you seem to be missing this point entirely.

  6. Herb,
    Next time someone offers you a laptop you can’t use, I’d suggest passing it on to someone who can’t afford one who could. I’m sure a few schools and non-government organisations would really appreciate the offer.
  7. Re "Next time someone offers you a laptop you can’t use, I’d suggest passing it on to someone who can’t afford one who could." Good point: do that kind of thing, though to date it’s always been out of my own pocket (handing down, or subsidizing/buying, a machine for someone like a student). Unlike the bloggers, the few machines I’ve been offered have been for my own work use at Microsoft and the vendors want the machines back when I’m done using them. For example, this Intel box carries a "Property of Intel / Intel Confidential" sticker. But I always have some students in mind anyway, so if I’m ever offered a "use or give away" product it’ll be sure to find a good home.
    Re "(no name)’s point was about the perceived value of a gift and the sense of obligation that valuable gifts create. Herb, you seem to be missing this point entirely." In the original post, when I noted what I consider to be a parallel in kind, I added that I didn’t claim this was The Answer for everyone, and that others may not see it to be the same in kind, but: "If you think the price point matters, then what is the price boundary between ‘fair gift’ and ‘bribery,’ and why?" I’m glad a couple of people commented on the ‘why’ (e.g., resalability, and residual value to first, second, or third parties), although so far they haven’t commented on the boundary — if there’s a difference, there’s a boundary, and it seems that someone who thinks there’s a difference between two things should be able to describe the boundary more crisply (price point or otherwise).
    The purpose of the post was to provoke thought about what our own views may be, and if to us there is a difference then to think about what makes the difference as well where the boundary markers lie. One reason I find it hard to say that the product’s sticker price and/or perceived value is enough to declare the situations different in kind (not just degree) is that I’d guess that almost any random $50 book I receive, no matter how bad, would be worth $20 to somebody on eBay. And, as I mentioned, (most) laptops are more expensive than (most) books, but I know of sub-$100 laptops and super-$100 books… and I suspect that each could fetch a part of its value on eBay. So then we have a situation where a super-$100 book doesn’t create a sense of obligation, but a sub-$100 laptop does?
    For what it’s worth, it seems Joel Spolsky agrees that the cases I gave as examples are different in degree, not kind, because this issue has prompted him to start to globally refuse any kind of gift, regardless of size. Whether I see it exactly the same way as Joel or not, I do think his decision is self-consistent. And I think there are other valid decisions besides his and mine, and our commenters have expressed some of their own.
    Meta-comment: It sure is nice to be able to turn on comments again. The comment spam volume at my previous blog host(s) simply overran all the technical defenses there, and there was no way to keep comments on without also channeling stock solicitations and dubious pharmaceutical offers. Life’s too short to be constantly deleting those after the fact. I hope Spaces continues to be safe from the spam so these can stay on… looks good so far, though I’ve already passed along some suggestions for ways Spaces could be improved.
  8. (no name) here. My argument is about perceived value, not price point. Think "family values" instead of "dollar values" — one is about things which are important and useful, the other is just an arbitrary figure. There is a world of difference. A bad book may cost $100, but since it’s a BAD book, the perceived value of the book is zero, nothing, nil. Less than nil, actually. What do I owe someone who has given me a bad book that has wasted both my time and valuable space on my bookshelf? Nothing. This is the crucial point. This is why giving out books differs IN KIND than giving out laptops preloaded with software.
    Companies want their products reviewed in the press. So naturally, they give out samples of their products. As a reviewer, is there anything morally wrong about taking a free sample and publishing a review? Ask yourself: does this artifact have value even if the product is terrible? If the artifact is a book and the product is the contents, the answer is no, the artifact has no value if the product is terrible. If the artifact is a laptop and the product is software, the answer is yes, the artifact has great value even if the product is useless. This sets up a conundrum for reviewers. They’ve been asked by a company to review their product, which sucks, but they’ve been given something with a high perceived value, so they feel endebted. Might that color their reviews? You bet it might!
    Forget the dollar signs. They are a red herring. This is about values.
  9. Herb said, "if there’s a difference, there’s a boundary".
    Let’s have a look at this argument. All the colors of a rainbow blend beautifully and seamlessly from one to the next. Yet, there is no crisp boundary between the colors. I guess I would have to conclude, then, that there is no difference between the colors of the rainbow! Interesting.
    You argue that moral judgements must have crisp boundaries to be valid. No crisp boundary? No problem! This is obviously false. With morality, there is almost never a crisp boundary between white and black — they blend in many shades of grey.
    This is beside the point, though, because books and laptops differ in KIND and not in DEGREE as I argue below.

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