So, Did You Hear the One About the InfoWorld Columnist?

If you’re a close follower of the online tech press, you may have noticed the brouhaha that surfaced this weekend, touched off largely by the revelation that a popular InfoWorld columnist, Randall C. Kennedy, has been secretly operating a software company — and talking to the press — under the pseudonym of Craig Barth, CTO of Devil Mountain Software.

To bring you up to speed: In the guise of Barth, Kennedy spoke regularly to the press on behalf of his company, which makes system performance monitoring software for large financial firms as well as for consumer PCs. The downloadable, consumer PC version of Devil Mountain’s monitoring software generates performance data that he aggregates and uses for research reports, including a number that have caught the eye of the industry press — InternetNews.com included.

Until this past weekend, the industry at large didn’t know that Devil Mountain’s mouthpiece, Craig Barth, and Randall Kennedy were one in the same. But that was until InfoWorld’s Eric Knorr on Sunday revealed his site’s contributor to have been masquerading as Devil Mountain’s CTO under an assumed name.

From Knorr’s post:

    Integrity and honesty are core to InfoWorld’s mission of service to IT professionals, and we view Kennedy’s actions as a serious breach of trust. As a result, he will no longer be a contributor to InfoWorld, and we have removed his blog from this site.

There’s some debate about how much of an impact a separate, extensive investigation by the staff over at ZDNet had on the unveiling: ZDNet’s Larry Dignan says his publication had been on the verge of releasing the findings of its look into Kennedy, Barth and Devil Mountain when InfoWorld decided to beat them to the punch.

In any event, Kennedy — the author of InfoWorld pieces like “Why I Hate Microsoft Office 2010,” “Why Windows 7 May Still Fail” and “Critical Windows 7 Bug Risks Derailing Product Launch” — has called out Dignan and company’s report as a Microsoft-sponsored hit piece. (Dignan responds here.)

And, he’s said that InfoWorld’s editorial management knew full well of his Barth persona and approved it. For one thing, InfoWorld and Devil Mountain Software had collaborated on the creation of InfoWorld Windows Sentinel, essentially a repackaged version of Devil Mountain’s consumer PC performance-analysis and -tracking software.

I spoke with Kennedy earlier today, and gave him a chance to explain himself, and how he thinks the industry should look upon the data generated by the exo.performance.network — the arm of Devil Mountain that aggregated, analyzed and released stats on users’ PC activities.

His take: Since joining as a columnist, InfoWorld had pushed him to be as controversial — and thus, as successful — a writer as possible. But he said that taking on the mantle of an Internet “shock jock” (his words) undermined his ability to market the software made by Devil Mountain and to publicize the valuable analytical data offered by the exo.performance.network, or XPnet, as it’s known.

“I was a polarizing bad guy,” he said. “It would be like Howard Stern publishing economic data … I realized, ‘My God, I have painted myself into one hell of a corner here.'”

“My job was to be the lightning rod for InfoWorld. I didn’t like it very much, but I accepted it. But the problem is when I wanted to publish hard research data … I couldn’t do it as me,” Kennedy explained.

“How do I take this legitimate framework developed over the years [and] tell the world what I’ve got here?” he added. “Unfortunately, I shot myself in the foot by being a shock jock for InfoWorld.”

For Kennedy, the solution was to take his middle name, Craig, and pair it with another family name, Barth.

It was then as “Craig Barth” that Kennedy began publishing XPnet research and fielding calls from the press, including us, the AP, Gizmodo and others.

“I had to respond somehow to inquiries from reporters … primarily because if Randall Kennedy responded, they’d say ‘What the hell are you doing here?'” Kennedy said. “I regret the decision, but I don’t feel like I had much of a choice. I simply had to find a way to get the information out there without people dismissing it out of hand because it was coming from a shock character from a publication like InfoWorld.”

Next Page: “All hell broke loose.”

Kennedy said the dual roles continued largely below the radar until last week’s story about Windows 7 memory usage raised some eyebrows.

Said Kennedy: “I had data points about how PCs are actually performing, and applied these benchmark metrics developed back with Morgan Stanley,” which he said has been a Devil Mountain client for years, with 3,000 seats under license. “And [I] found way more Windows 7 machines using amounts of memory … that they were going to start swapping to disk.”

“According to our experience and methodology, that would indicate that they were going to get slowed down by virtual memory swapping.”

However, the claims in the report immediately set off a firestorm of criticism that ultimately seems to have shed some unwanted attention on the relationship between Craig Barth’s Devil Mountain Software and Randall Kennedy.

“All hell broke loose. Some of those sites started poking around, asking ‘Who’s Devil Mountain? Who’s Craig Barth, and who’s this company?'” Kennedy said. “The rest is history.”

I’m still awaiting word back from InfoWorld on how much they knew about Kennedy’s alternate persona, and when. Eric Knorr’s note indicates that InfoWorld discovered the subterfuge on Friday, though Kennedy has charged publicly that the publication’s management knew far earlier — and didn’t raise any objection.

As noted above, InfoWorld and Kennedy also had a relationship beyond his serving as a blogger: In 2007, InfoWorld began offering a branded version of Devil Mountain’s XPnet client — the InfoWorld Windows Sentinel. According to Kennedy, Devil Mountain is a one-man shop. That means that if InfoWorld was really in the dark about the ruse, then Kennedy was able to shield Devil Mountain’s public research efforts under an assumed name, masquerading as the sole contact for the InfoWorld Windows Sentinel deal while also serving as a key contributor to the site’s editorial content.

As it turned out, Devil Mountain’s deal with InfoWorld helped grow its XPnet public research work dramatically, Kennedy said. It generated PC performance data that soon found itself mentioned in several of his pieces.

“The reality is [the InfoWorld column] was distracting me tremendously from the real work out in the field that I wanted to do with the exo.performance.network,” he said. “It was languishing. So I struck up a deal with InfoWorld.”

And, of course, all that work culminated ultimately (and somewhat ironically) in the controversial Windows 7 report that resulted in his unmasking as Barth and the loss of that InfoWorld gig.

Now that the cat’s out of the bag, he remains unrepentant about his role in the matter.

“A lot of people are pontificating that you violated this trust, or breached that … I didn’t do anything unethical in terms of misrepresenting data or trying to lie about something more than just my name.”

And as for Devil Mountain Software, Kennedy admits that all the negative publicity isn’t likely to help the company’s relationship with customers like Morgan Stanley, which has what he described as a 3,000-seat license for its PC monitoring tool, DMS Clarity Suite, along with a maintenance contract that comes up for renewal in the months ahead.

But Kennedy said that he’s similarly undeterred in that regard, as well.

Devil Mountain Software “is not going anywhere,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got 24,000 registered users of XPnet.com… we’ve got our blog, and we’re going to keep publishing research.”

Christopher Saunders is senior managing editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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