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Exclusive: Q&A with WSJ Tech Expert Walt Mossberg

On Monday night Moby and Wall Street Journal Personal Technologies columnist Walt Mossberg will discuss music and entertainment in the digital age in a special event at Lincoln Center. To help prep us for the discussion, the gadgets guru hopped on the phone to chat about why we’re obsessed with certain brands, where the music industry missed the tech boat, and who we can look to for innovation next.

Flavorpill: What do you think makes the tech consumer so prone to fetishizing certain brands or objects?

Walt Mossberg: That’s a fascinating question. I think it’s more than fetishizing. There’s something I call “tech theology” and I think there are a couple of things at work here. People do fall in love with tech products — could be something like Twitter, which is a service, or something physical like an iPhone or BlackBerry. They fall in love with these things because they enhance their life in some way. It feels like they give them both power and pleasure, which is after all why we fall in love with most things.

But there’s something else that goes on. There’s a certain validation factor, particularly with the hardware devices. The reason there are Mac zealots and BlackBerry zealots is in part, I believe, because people have to spend a bunch of money on them — sometimes against the advice of someone else. And sometimes they keep spending additional money. They buy the next model when it comes out, or they buy some upgrade. Now, even on a BlackBerry, you can buy all kinds of software. So I think people get invested financially and emotionally, and it makes them adopt this product, almost in a religious way, because they want to feel validated that they did the right thing.

I get emails from folks who have bought relatively obscure phones that are probably going to disappear from the market a month later. Because as you know, the phone carriers bring out large numbers of phones that don’t get anywhere near the visibility of the Palm Pre or the Android phones or iPhones. These people are just vehement about their love for the thing. I think there, some of it is that they genuinely do like it, and some of it is that they’re looking for validation. All of the cool kids in school have something else.

Somebody could write a book about this fetishizing, or what I like to call tech theology. It’s very interesting.

FP: What kind of smartphone do you carry?

WM: I carry an iPhone. There was a long period of time where I carried a Treo. It may be that I carry something else next year. But right now I use an iPhone. I enjoy using it. I don’t enjoy AT&T. That’s mostly A. pretty typical and B. I’ve written about it. Although in fairness, where I live here in Washington, D.C., because it happens to house the actual government, AT&T apparently made the decision it might be a good idea if the government could get reception. So they’ve spent a lot of money to improve their reception here.

I’m told by AT&T by the way, that within the matter of a month or something, suddenly be much better reception in New York. Since it occurred to them that there were a lot of media people in New York  that maybe it would be better if they could get reception. It has also occurred to them that maybe Silicon Valley should have better reception.

FP: The discussion with Moby is going to focus on technology and the music industry. What do you think they’re doing right? Where have they missed the boat?

WM: Well, the big boat sailed away eight years ago. They totally missed it, and then they tried to shoot the passengers, and that didn’t work. I think it has taken the music industry far too long to understand the nature of digital distribution and the consumers are comfortable consuming music.

There are artists who disagree with what I’m about to say, but really, the unit of exchange in music is not the album, it’s the song. That’s how rock and roll was built. It was built on singles. Albums sometimes are an artistic whole that deserve not to be broken up, but in the vast majority of cases — albums over the last fifty years or so — have just basically been record companies saying to bands get your ass in here and get 12 songs down because this is how we’re going to sell it. Whether it was on vinyl, or later on CD. I’m conveniently skipping over the eight-track.

But I think now the record labels are understand it. They came to a compromise with Apple about pricing and DRM. There was a trade made there where a lot of the songs are now more than $.99, but they don’t have DRM. And they did that partly by using Amazon as a distribution mechanism. What I still don’t think they fully understand is that most downloads are not paid for at all, and the songs probably should be $.49 — at least the back catalog. I think the record industry is going to be a case study in business schools for 50 years for how not to deal with a disruptive technology.

FP: What are they doing that you really like?

WM: They’re not doing a lot that I really like to be honest. They’re just facing up to reality a little better than they were. I don’t see them leading the way. The coolest new things are being done by artists and tech companies — not by the record labels. Moby has sat at the junction of some of that, and I’m really looking forward to talking to him about it.

FP: Final question: How important is Google Wave going to be to the average consumer?

WM: I was thinking about that yesterday because I had a meeting about it with Google. The answer is I don’t know yet. I’m not sure. The way they are positioning it is more about collaboration and brain storming than about sort of Twitter-like social networking. Obviously it is social networking and the way that companies position things is not always the way that consumers use them, but if I understood it correctly they are positioning it much more like, “OK, there are five of us and we’re starting a business, or we’re planning a party or we’re writing a press release.” Whatever it is.

It’s a great fabulous tool for doing stuff like that. On the surface, it would seem both cool but also more limited in some ways than Facebook or Twitter, because it’s not an app platform. On the otherhand, the true answer is I just don’t know.

Check out Mossberg, Moby, Music and More Monday night at 7:30 p.m. at Lincoln Center; tickets here.