Intel Ads at Ace's

By Van Smith

Date: March 8, 2002

Yes, I am aware of the large, busy Intel advertisements now appearing at Ace's Hardware, and yes, it pains me to see them.  Certainly it becomes more difficult to write objectively about those parties who are paying your bills.  Intel, in particular, is a company with no inhibitions about using its leverage to manipulate a publication's viewpoint.  For instance, I have written before about how Intel opens and shuts off access to review hardware to guide analysis in its favor.



Money.  I have seen how it can corrupt.  Growing up, I saw the people I love shot at, stabbed, their houses burned and even some were killed, but I never saw the true depths that the human soul could plummet to until I got into this business. 

Lying, cheating, betrayal, unbridled cupidity – constant treachery… why do some people behave this way in the computer hardware review community?  Partially because about two years ago this was a golden industry.  Sites were coming online only to be sold for tens of millions of dollars a few months later.  Also, the impact that some hardware sites have made to multi-billion dollar companies is undeniable.  Taming hardware sites, transforming them into a form of influence peddling, could be a high priority for those companies’ whose fortunes have been buffeted by the occasionally critical review.

Especially in today’s lean economy where ad revenue is meager, the dough is sometimes hard to pass up.



A little known fact is that SharkyExtreme, a once popular site, was a spin off of Tom's Hardware.  In ignoble fashion it broke away from THG and only a few months later was parlayed to Internet.com for a sum that entered the eight-digit range.  The story behind SE is a clouded one -- THG did not profit -- but an interesting character behind this incident -- and a figure difficult to ignore in the hardware community -- is Larry Barber.

Mr. Barber ran the business aspects of THG and his picture can be seen on the back of the old Tom's Hardware book.  Although Tom claimed credit for helping out a slighted Alex Ross by coming up with SharkyExtreme (which was originally conceived as a gaming site to compliment Tom’s Hardware) and providing resources to get the site started, there was a falling out between the two camps.  This rift led to Mr. Barber's departure from THG and his taking over the business side of SE.  In a matter of months, Larry Barber quickly maneuvered SharkyExtreme for the high-dollar Internet.com acquisition. 


The “Puppet Master” and AnandTech

Made famous among the hardware community for his ability to groom and peddle off SharkyExtreme so quickly and profitably, Mr. Barber is sought after by those in the industry looking for fortunes themselves.  Having already “touched” two of the largest hardware sites in the world, Mr. Barber has had at least one other high-profile win: AnandTech.

Mr. Barber could first be seen hand-in-hand with Anand (and Anand's mother, who usually accompanied her son on trips) at Computex nearly two years ago.  Later, allegedly Mr. Barber and his wife began running the business side of that site, but the bottom fell out of the industry almost simultaneously, morbidly devaluing all sites including AnandTech.  A site that might have been able to rake in more than $100 million in a buyout only few months prior, it was now doubtful that AnandTech would have been able to break $10 million making a buyout look much less attractive in the devalued market.

Although Mr. Barber is famous for his business acumen, his touch is also associated by many with the strong Intel-leaning viewpoints that SharkyExtreme became famous for.  Indeed, "commercialization" is the word that first comes to minds of many who are familiar with Mr. Barber.  A few have even referred to him as the “Puppet Master.”

How has Larry Barber's influence impacted AnandTech?  It is impossible to be certain, but in addition to Intel advertisements that have been running on that site now for months, AnandTech has been taking an increasingly pro-Intel stance.  In fact, the tone of their articles quite closely mirrors the official lines coming from Intel's marketing machines. 

This, as a trend, recalls the last site Mr. Barber directed.


THG and ExtremeTech

At one point THG was in discussions with ZDNN for a buyout with initial figures over one-hundred-million dollars.  This buyout fell through after I left THG and ironically ZDNN themselves were acquired by CNET.

Soon after quitting Tom's Hardware, I began working for InQuest Market Research as a Senior Analyst.  Almost immediately Bert tried to convince me to write through InQuest for ExtremeTech, who had expressed interest in publishing my articles.  Familiar with my history, he knew that I would not be receptive to this suggestion, but since he was paying my bills I decided to conduct an experiment. 

I wrote a very strongly opinionated piece regarding the ACR versus CNR debate -- a simple cut-and-dry issue involving riser card standards -- that necessarily would take a condemning view of the Intel-backed CNR initiative.  If ExtremeTech would bite on this article, then it might be possible for me to write anything for them and not have to worry about objectivity being undermined.

They didn't.  After the document bounced back and forth with directions each time to soften the analysis, I was eventually able to convince Bert that any further edits would only serve to destroy the point of the paper.  Soon afterwards, Bert dropped the ExtremeTech issue.  You can read what remains of that analysis here.


Ace's and Rambus

For years, Ace’s Hardware has been one of my favorite hardware sites.  However, I have not always agreed with their conclusions or methodologies.

For instance, I am not sure what has driven Ace's Johan De Gelas to be such a proponent of Rambus.  His backing of the technology has led to embarrassingly poor analysis and manifest errors.  As an example, Johan wrote conclusively that Rambus RDRAM was more bandwidth efficient than DDR SDRAM.  I informed him of his mistakes, but I do not think he ever recanted his position even though it is now painfully clear to every informed observer how short-sighted his pronouncements were.  In fact, using his own methodology, DDR-SDRAM is clearly superior to RDRAM as we, among others, have shown.

Johan's latest article, peppered liberally with Intel advertisements, follows very closely the Rambus presentation at Platform Conference. 



Yes, money continues to be in short supply in the industry.  Times are still hard.  But those in this business need to ask themselves why they write.

With the apparent implosion of ExtremeTech, which we have been writing about over the last few weeks, some sites seem to be jockeying for position to fill the void anticipated if this massive corporate intruder disappears entirely.  I suspect some sites are ready to suck up any available ad revenue that might be freed if ExtremeTech winks out. 

Certainly the extreme problems ET is suffering stand as testimony to the inherent value of enthusiast sites, and how difficult -- if not impossible -- a corporate entity can mimic a traditional hardware site.  This should drive up the values of the traditional enthusiast sites.


But selling out is not the answer

Hardware sites have become so powerful and influential simply because their informed readers trust them -- typically these sites are run by people very much like their own readers.  These readers – the movers and shakers of the industry, the decision makers in IT departments, even other hardware site editors – are savvy.  A thoughtfully prepared article published on a trusted hardware site can move these readers and have a top-down effect, rippling across vendors, impacting the entire semiconductor industry.

But blowing smoke in their readers' faces will only cause the audience to go elsewhere.

Commercialization might bring short-term rewards to those webmasters looking to get rich quick, but inevitably those computer hardware sites who betray their readership by peddling marketing strategies will fail.  The readership is too smart, too informed to be hoodwinked for long.  Even the novices that frequent these sites will slowly bleed off, led by the gurus in the community.

And if you want to make money, just wait.  As I stated several times in this article, hardware sites have enormous influence and can make or break companies as big as Intel, AMD, Rambus – anybody – just by being honest.  The money will come back, simply because the intrinsic value of quality hardware sites is so very high.  Just don't envision Rolexes, S-Class Mercedes, and Caiman Island getaways that some of the weaker -- and certainly less liked – “role models” in our community brandished about.

Yes, I am disappointed in Ace's.  It has been one of my favorite sites.  I hope Brian and Johan investigate alternative revenue channels, rather than suckle from the teat of one of the most ruthless and manipulative companies in the world.   After all, there are more important things in life than money.



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