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The low theatre of high tech: Product hucksterism in the digital age

Panos Panay, the general manager of Microsoft Surface holds up a Surface, the company's new tablet computer, at Hollywood's Milk Studios in Los Angeles on Monday, June 18, 2012.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

For the technology industry, product launch season is a magical time – a time for senior executives to brush up on their teleprompter side-glance, channel their inner P.T. Barnum and flagrantly debase the word "revolutionary" by using it to describe products that will, in all likelihood, be obsolete in six months' time.

As far as big reveals go, this summer features an all-star line-up. Microsoft kicked off the season this week by announcing its new Surface tablet. Also this week, Samsung held a swanky Manhattan launch event for its Galaxy S III smartphone. Next week's annual Google "I/O" conference may well feature another tablet announcement. In addition, both Apple and Research In Motion will likely reveal new phones before the end of September. If you make a living renting out auditorium space in San Francisco, or you just like watching promotional videos featuring good-looking hipsters and smiling children, this summer is going to be your Woodstock.

In the past couple of years, the biggest fish in the gadget-making pond have been shifting their big product announcements in-house. This January, Microsoft all but parted ways with the Consumer Electronics Show, the tech industry's biggest, noisiest annual conference. Previously, Microsoft's CEO would give the keynote address at CES, which (the keynote, but also much of CES itself) would inevitably deteriorate into a series of mostly minor product announcements. But while the keynote lent CES some gravitas, it doesn't do much for Microsoft. The company doesn't have a lot to gain by making its major product announcements during a conference that just misses the big holiday shopping season and features competing cacophony from thousands of other companies. For that reason and more, Google, Apple, RIM and Facebook also tend to make their biggest launch events in-house productions.

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The irony is that, for all their efforts to differentiate themselves from the crowd, the major tech companies' events all look suspiciously the same – which is to say, they all look suspiciously like they were cribbed from Apple. (Which got a jump on the season at its June 11 Worldwide Developers Conference keynote).

Take the Microsoft Surface announcement this week: All the glossy product shots, all the talk about the "intersection" of technology and lifestyle, all the enthusiastic applause that came either from Microsoft employees planted in the audience (which would be bad) or the journalists covering the event (which would be worse). Change the names on the invite and you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a somewhat ham-fisted dry run of the next iPad launch.

In fact, Microsoft's biggest mistake was that it didn't copy Apple enough. Superficially, the Surface launch borrowed all the right concepts – keeping the focus on the product, hyping the user experience and essentially forcing all the journalists at the invite-only event to do little more than transcribe every last detail of the show.

But there's more to an Apple media event than slick product demos and reporter-wrangling. Almost all iPhone, iPad and Mac launches feature hard price tags and availability dates. That information does more than just give fans something to look forward to, it also projects a sense of confidence on the part of the company. In an industry famous for vapourware – the colloquial term for products that are announced but never actually released – there's very real value in convincing your customers you have a product fully figured out and ready to go. There's little doubt Microsoft will eventually release the Surface, but there's also a difference between hearing an Apple executive quote an exact price, and hearing a Microsoft executive say: "We'll have a retail price comparable with competitive ultrabook-class PCs."

(To its credit, Microsoft did one thing right that most other companies have so far done wrong – it quickly and clearly differentiated its product from Apple's. For better or worse, most non-Apple smartphone and tablet announcements these days are met with one question from consumers: How is this thing different from the iPhone or the iPad? A few weeks from now, people may not remember all the precise specifications of Microsoft's new tablet, but they'll remember that it comes with a cover that doubles as a keyboard.)

In an age of fanboys, live-blogging and quantum attention spans, a successful tech product announcement is a kind of emotional sales pitch. Enterprise security, network efficiency, open-standard compatibility – that's all well and good, but it does nothing to capture the imagination of the kind of customer who's willing to line up overnight to buy a phone. Big corporate clients might want a rational business case, but the blogosphere demands a show.

This week, Samsung hired dubstep phenom Skrillex to play at its Galaxy smartphone launch party. Does it matter that Skrillex has virtually nothing to do with Samsung? Does it matter that all the music Skrillex makes sounds like a Transformer going through an MRI machine? No, the only thing that matters is that the Skrillex is hugely popular with the demographic that Samsung wants to sell phones to.

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There's a lot at stake for almost every company involved in this product launch season. The success of Microsoft's Surface will partially correlate to the (much more important) success of its latest Windows software, due out this fall. If the North American launch of the new Galaxy smartphone goes well, Samsung could have on its hands the first device to legitimately challenge the iPhone. Google needs a blockbuster announcement to fight back against more unified competition from Facebook and Apple. And for RIM, the success or failure of the new BlackBerry 10 phones will essentially determine the continued viability of the entire company.

As such, all these companies better get their launch events right, and they could do worse than to simply copy the Apple approach verbatim: Make it slick, simple and glossy, give consumers a firm price and launch date, and try to put somebody with some charisma up on stage.

The second-worst type of product launch is one that prompts derision. The worst type prompts a shrug.

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