Not another SpacePilot PRO review

This post is not about the new SpacePilot PRO 3D controller from 3Dconnexion (a division of Logitech). This post is about the Internet coverage of the launch of that new device, journalism, blogging, freebies and ethics.

It has long been common practice for companies to give out free stuff to journalists. Free gadgets, free transport and other expenses for attending events, free beer, free lunch… oh, wait, there’s no such thing. As blogging has risen in prominence, that practice has been extended to providing free stuff for bloggers. It was traditional in the past for such freebies to go unmentioned in reports about the products of such companies. I think the first time I saw this kind of thing disclosed was by Ralph Grabowski, and I was impressed. Maybe it’s just the sites I read, but I see more of that kind of disclosure in blogs than I do in the traditional press (whatever that means these days).

It seems that 3Dconnexion is distributing its US$499 SpacePilot PRO devices like confetti (particluarly at SolidWorks World), hoping to get as much coverage as it can. It’s working. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with that. If a company wants to let potential customers know about its products, and if those customers read blogs, it makes sense for the company to send samples to bloggers in the hope that they get reviewed. As long as there are no strings attached, I see no ethical problem with that. If a negative review led to a reviewer being taken off the freebies list then I definitely would have a very big problem with that, but I see no evidence of that from 3Dconnexion.

Where I do see an ethical issue is when a freebie is received, a review is written, and no disclosure is made. I think readers are entitled to know about any free stuff associated with a review, and I think this applies equally to press and blogs.

Let’s have a look at some recent SpacePilot PRO coverage to see how we’re travelling at the moment. The following sites have mentions or reports without explicit disclosure. In many cases a mention is made of having one (or waiting for one) but it’s not clear if this is a free SpacePilot PRO, or if the writer has paid for one. If you’re one of these people, feel free to set the record straight either here or on your own site.

Here’s how I think it should have been done:

There are almost certainly other reviews and mentions that I’ve missed, so feel free to inform me and I’ll add to the above lists.

I hasten to point out that I’m not throwing stones here. I’m not accusing any of these people of writing positive reviews in return for a cool gadget. I’m just encouraging everybody to unambiguously declare any freebies they receive, that are associated in any way with whatever they write.

On Twitter, I see several of my fellow AutoCAD bloggers impatiently awaiting the arrival of their cool gadget. When they receive them, I expect we will see more reviews, and it will be interesting to see how many of those reviews include full disclosure, especially now I’ve raised the issue.

Here’s my own disclosure about my personal association with 3Dconnexion. I investigated the use of 3D controllers for a client and suggested the purchase of a couple of pretty expensive 3Dconnexion SpaceBall 5000 devices. Within months of purchase, 3Dconnexion made these obsolete without warning and failed to produce any new drivers for them, making them expensive paperweights.

When I attended AU 2006 (at Autodesk’s expense as a MyFeedback Scholarship), I turned up at the Press Room looking for a Press badge, as I am a Cadalyst writer. I received a Press person’s small bag of assorted goodies from various vendors. This included pens, small USB keys and the like, but a 3Dconnexion SpacePilot was the stand-out freebie. I later suggested that my client purchase a couple of SpacePilots to replace the obsolete SpaceBalls. Not because of the freebie, but because they were the cheapest suitable devices available.

So, on a personal level that’s one up and one down for 3Dconnexion. My view of 3Dconnexion is about the same as that of parent company Logitech. I like the devices, I’ll even use my own money to buy them, but I don’t think a good enough job is done of supporting recently purchased devices with updated drivers as new software arrives.

I haven’t received a SpacePilot PRO or the promise of one. I’m not sore about that. I haven’t asked or been asked. If they do happen to send me one, I’ll play with it and if I think it’s worth writing about, I’ll do so in an unbiased way and with full disclosure.

12 comments to Not another SpacePilot PRO review

  • Hey Steve,

    Well, I don’t think there’s anything that has ever been hidden about my personal association with 3Dconnexion, and anyone that knows me or frequents my blog knows about it too. I may have failed to mention it yet again in this particular post, but the thing is like this: Not so long ago, out of curiosity after hearing so many other SW users rave about their 3D mice, I asked 3Dconnexion if I could have one of their units to review. They agreed and sent a SpacePilot for me. I want to make it clear that they never requested any kind of writeup or advertisement or anything in exchange. They just said to feel free to go back to them with any questions or suggestions I may have about their product. After testing it with SolidWorks 2009 for a few weeks, I wrote about it because I LOVED the SpacePilot. That simple! That’s why I was also invited to see their new SpacePilot PRO while at SolidWorks 2009. I had expressed interest in their product before and in any new products they may introduce in the future. Nothing hidden here. So we had a meeting and they showed me their prototype and I played with it for a little bit and grew even more curious about it, and again asked them if I could have one of those to review once they became available. Once again, I want to make it clear that 3Dconnexion NEVER asked for any writeup, positive review, advertisement or anything remotely similar. They asked only for feedback given to THEM that could help them improve their product. The only thing they made me promise is that I wouldn’t say a word about what I had seen until AFTER the SpacePilot PRO was finally revealed. I think that’s very reasonable, but it was sooooooooo hard to keep my mouth shut after seeing that cute gadget. I spent all this time patiently waiting for it to be revealed so I could finally talk about it. NDA’s are hard for me. :-) So, that’s the way it is. I don’t know about the rest of the bloggers that wrote about it, but that’s how it is for me. Nothing hidden and no writeups in exchange for anything. So far, I really like what I’ve seen about it, it did impress me, but I still need to test it thoroughly and then I’ll write about what I like and don’t like about the product. In all fairness, perhaps you would be right to say that I’m a bit biased, because I already love the first SpacePilot and so I’m expecting even better from this one.

    Have a nice day, Steve! :-)

  • Hey Steve, yeah, the SP PRO coverage yesterday was INSANE. I figured as much really. And yep man, they totally gave me a free one, which I mention in my upcoming review. If you’ve seen where I’ve done other product reviews, I can be pretty critical of the product.

    Anyway, there were no strings or requirements. The review I did of their SpaceNavigator didn’t get me pulled, so I guess they’re fine of what I consider a negative review.

    Hope you get a chance to use one man. See ya.

  • Gabi, thanks for dropping by and explaining things from your perspective.

  • I don’t know what it’s like at magazines these days, but during my time at CADalyst, there were almost no free-bees:

    – CADalyst paid for our travel to events.

    – Hardware products were loaned to us for reviews, and then we returned them. Often, we also had to pay customs brokers to import the hardware temporarily.

    – Software was free to keep, although often we had no use for it, beyond writing the review. The sole exception was Autodesk for a while in 1986, who had a new vp of marketing from IBM, who figured magazines should pay full list price for the software they review. (He didn’t last long.)

    If we liked a piece of hardware sufficiently to want to keep it, we bought it. I recall us paying something like $2,200 for a 19″ CRT color monitor — in the days when green text screens were still the norm. Once in a rare while a hardware vendor would let us keep stuff free.

  • Like Gabi, I don’t think anyone would be surprised by my association with 3Dconnexion. I’ve posted about their products quite a few times in the past. Yes, the sent me a SpacePilot Pro to review, but that’s it. To the best of my knowledge, I’ll be sending it back unless I can talk my boss into coughing up the $$ for it.
    The only hardware that I’ve received, and been able to keep, was a product that I actually didn’t like and said as much in my review of it. Hmmm, maybe I should do the same with the Pro.

  • I’m not entirely sure what the point is. Are you questioning the bias or non-bias nature of the coverage that’s been put out so far? We haven’t recieved a unit yet, but one’s in the post to me while I’m travelling.

    Yes, I’ll be reviewing it, I’ll be giving our readers my thoughts on the user experience and the build quality of these devices. Have I paid for it?

    No. I haven’t.

    That’s one of the nice things about being a professional writer in this field, people send you technology for evaluation. Should I make the point that everything I receive is free? No, I don’t believe I should. I’d rather spend the time on giving people some usable information. Do film reviewers, theatre reviewers, software reviewers mention the fact that they get to see, experience and work with these things for free? It would be superfluous.

    I’ve been writing about 3D technology for 10 years and I can guarantee you that I’ve never had a single vendor try to pressurize me into writing a glowing review because they’ve sent me stuff for evaluation. If they did, they’d get no coverage whatsoever – I’d rather spend the time writing about a product from a vendor that’s working in a fair manner. Why?

    Because I’m a professional.

    When the SpacePilot first launched, I wrote a very critical review of the product back in 1998 or so. The team behind the product didn’t like it, disagreed with my comments about the ergonomics of the device and we had a heated phone argument when the review was published. Did that stop them working with us, working with us to give devices away to readers, sending evaluation units and yes, advertising in our publication? No.

    Because they’re professionals too.

    My tuppence anyway

    Cheers

    Al Dean, DEVELOP3D

  • My disclosure? with all due respect I find this kinda silly. You suggested that I somewhere in my review on the SpacePilot PRO should have stated that I am not sure if 3Dconnexion is going to ask for the review model back, seriously? Granted this was the 1st time I have reviewed a product on cadcamstuff.com where a company had contacted me, I am not sure I will handle it any different in the future.
    3Dconnexion contacted me, I was told they would like to send me a model to review, and my response was “cool”. 3Dconnexion never told me if they want the model back, and I never asked. Actually I did ask this morning after I was pointed to this blog post, but about 10 hours later I have still not received a answer by email.
    As I linked in my review, I have previously blogged about Logitech products, the MX mouse and 3Dconnexions spacenavigator. Both purchased by myself on my own time, the company owner where I work later insisted that the company payed for the MX mouse, as I also stated in the post, but the spacenavigator is mine. I blog about 3Dconnexion’s products because I believe its worth blogging about, not because someone is throwing me a bone.
    Thanks
    Lars Christensen, cadcamstuff.com

  • Al, I made it clear in my post that I’m not accusing anyone of bias. I’m not accusing anyone of being unprofessional, either. My point, which I thought was pretty clear, is about disclosure. I think there should be disclosure and you obviously disagree. Fine, let’s agree to disagree.

    Lars, yes, I seriously think you should disclose whether or not you’re getting a $499 freebie. Maybe you don’t care, but for most of your readers it would be a very pleasant day if they received such a cool gadget and they would probably care about whether they were getting it free or had to return it. Again, I’m not suggesting you’re biased. If I had one of these things to play with, it’s quite likely that I would write enthusiastically about it too.

    People, the point is disclosure. It’s a good thing, and I’m encouraging you to do it. I believe you will gain more respect from your readers if you do it than if you don’t. That’s it.

  • I’m late to the party as always, but I hope I have something worthwhile to add from Cadalyst’s perspective.

    I like the idea of full disclosure in theory — the more info you give to reader to make an informed decision, the better. But I don’t think this standard would accomplish much in reality. First off, some writers likely wouldn’t comply, leaving the readers guessing. For others, to comply would be to cast a bit of suspicion on yourself, when in many/most cases that’s not warranted.

    In today’s world, not many reviewers (or publications) can afford to buy the products they review. That leaves nearly all of us on a level playing field in this regard. If we all receive our products free, does it add any value to the review or help the reader to state that fact outright every time?

    Instead of putting value on full disclosure, the reader should be judging the reviewer’s credibility based on that person’s experience and reputation, the quality of previous reviews, the objectivity of the current review, the reputation of the publication, etc. If the reviewer comes up short -– for example, when the “review” is little more than the vendor’s press release or a puff piece — the reader should go elsewhere for advice.

    Cadalyst returns workstations and displays once the review is complete. Other hardware –- including graphics cards and 3D navigation devices -– stays with the reviewer (often on a shelf) because the vendor doesn’t want it back. Software also usually stays with the reviewer or sometimes is provided as a time-limited version.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I will reveal this: Cadalyst has a review in the works where the software was provided free (as usual) and the vendor is paying the reviewer’s fee (not usual — Cadalyst typically pays our reviewers’ fees). This was arranged after we couldn’t fit the review into the regular lineup (budget) and the vendor approached the reviewer with this offer. The reviewer is well known in the CAD field and has committed to upholding the same standards as always. We’ll state very obviously in the review that it was sponsored by the vendor because this is a departure from our norm -– and our readers can decide for themselves what to take from it (or not). Why try this? If conducted and presented properly, the sponsored review will have some value for the reader, and it supports the reviewer during a time when work is scarce. It’s most likely this will be a one-time thing. We’ll see how it goes.

    Nancy Johnson, Cadalyst

  • Nancy, thanks for your perspective.

    Just to be clear, I don’t see any need to disclose when a product is being loaned for review, and that includes time-limited software.

  • R. Paul Waddington

    Nancy, I was quite interested in your closing disclosure. As a person who has openly criticized Cadalyst’s Star ratings for various reasons; the most significant being they are completely irrelevant and misleading in a technical word such as ours.

    It was refreshing to see your comment about ‘sponsorship’ and the reasons.

    I cannot see that this would not work and would think no less of an article or comments written under these conditions if it is disclosed, provided; the author maintains an open mind in his review and reveals concerns or ‘warts’ that may, at a later stage, be found, or already be known, by a ‘reader(s)’ of the article.

    This is why I was spoke out about the ‘star rating': five star ratings were given to products that had know issues, not even alluded too in the article; in my opinion misleading readers into thinking the product was better than it would have proven to be, once purchased.

    If sponsorship helps and you can maintain objectivity and balance then I would hope you ‘use’ it in preference to not doing a review that would be of benefit.

  • In follow-up, here’s an interesting article posted by the Associated Press last week and ran in my local paper and others such as the Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/06/AR2009050603022.html

    I wasn’t aware that companies make arrangements with bloggers to the extent described in this article, or more importantly, that at least some of these bloggers go out of their way to cover up the fact that they are being compensated for reviews or even mere mentions of products in their blogs — trying to make the promotions seem “natural,” etc. That casts a while different light on this issue.

    The article also states that here in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission is reviewing its advertising guidelines with these bloggers in mind.

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