Microsoft woos bloggers with free computers, Vista

Microsoft's efforts to woo influential bloggers by sending them free computers loaded with the Vista operating system is generating controversy, with some online writers attacking would-be Vista reviewers for taking what were tantamount to bribes, while recipients defend their editorial independence, arguing that journalism-style rules prohibiting such gifts are outdated.

Bloggers who acknowledged receiving the computers as part of the joint Microsoft and AMD marketing program include Mary Jo Foley, Om Malik, Michael Arrington, Ed Bott and others.

In total, Microsoft and AMD gave away 90 PCs, all loaded with the highest-end version of Windows Vista, the 64-bit Ultimate edition. Most received Acer Ferrari laptops that list for between US$2,000 and $2,400 at retail stores. Others received media center desktops made by Velocity Micro Inc.

In letters accompanying the computers, which arrived last week, bloggers were given the option of returning the hardware to Microsoft, keeping it or disposing of it in some other way. "Microsoft has been very open and transparent," said a Microsoft spokeswoman. "There is no expectation of any editorial payback."

Jason Calacanis, founder of blog network Weblogs Inc. and an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Sequoia Capital venture capital firm, called the PC giveaways "payola" and "bribes" that respectable bloggers should refuse.

"Any free product or service is a bribe, with very few exceptions," he wrote in an online posting. "It's wrong, and bloggers are simply new to the space and they don't know what to make of this very, very obvious situation. The bloggers who go down the road of free products will learn, over time, that their credibility takes a hit.... At the end of the day your reputation is all you have, and life is too short to blow it on some free stuff."

Skepticism also reigned at Slashdot, an aggregator of tech news, where 303 mostly-negative comments about the Microsoft-AMD program were posted.

Long Zheng, an Australian college student and blogger who received a Velocity Micro computer, had received 199 mostly-negative comments at his blog. He plans to donate the PC, after reviewing it, to his former high school.

Bott, a computer magazine editor-turned blogger who plans to return his laptop to Microsoft, argued that traditional journalism strictures against keeping expensive gifts shouldn't apply universally to all bloggers.

"I'm a journalist by training and by profession, and that dictates my decision," Bott wrote. "But what if I were a starving student or an MVP who started a blog because I was passionate about technology and wanted to share that passion with a community? Everyone in the community wins when that person gets the chance to play with new technology. In that case, Microsoft is just doing some smart marketing, seeding the market and increasing mind share. They could spend the same amount of money hiring people to write white papers or running ads in the Wall Street Journal. But the world will get a lot more valuable feedback if that information comes from real people actually using this technology."

Foley, who writes the All About Microsoft blog, wrote that accepting the Acer laptop from Microsoft made sense for her because she had no plans to upgrade her existing PC running Windows XP. Nevertheless, she told Microsoft that she is treating the Acer laptop as a "loaner, not a gift."

The Microsoft spokeswoman said the computer giveaways were the latest aspect of a three-year program to work with independent bloggers whose musings on Windows and other Microsoft products are widely read by techies online. She did not immediately comment on reports that as part of the program, Microsoft also pays the expenses of some bloggers to travel to Microsoft events or trade shows.

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