April 23, 2010 7:20 pm

Leaks fuel the gadget feeding frenzy

Like an old-fashioned newspaper war, the blogs that dominate online news about the latest electronic gadgets have been having a field-day trying to outdo each other of late.

But the tide of leaks and over-heated speculation about gadgets points to a far more serious business war raging behind the scenes: with Apple’s marketing juggernaut picking up steam, some of the biggest names in the tech world are being forced into unusual tactics to grab attention for a series of make-or-break product launches of their own due later in the year.

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The gadget blog frenzy reached a peak this week after Gizmodo paid $5,000 for the mother of all scoops – an early copy of an upcoming new version of Apple’s iPhone, which had been left in a Silicon Valley bar by 27-year-old Apple employee Gray Powell. “The irony is that some people think this device was deliberately lost by Apple, that they were doing their own tease campaign,” says Nick Denton, head of Gawker Media, the owner of Gizmodo. “They don’t need to.”

Engadget, his arch-rival, was not to be outdone. Two days later its editors gushed over the extensive marketing materials that had just landed in their laps for an array of Dell smartphones due to hit the market in the coming months.

It is all part of a calculated campaign that has seen Apple’s rivals – led by Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft – working overtime to win the limelight.

With a range of smartphones and tablet computers due to launch this year, many of them based on Microsoft’s latest versions of Windows or Google’s Android operating system, they hope to launch the first big counter-offensive since Apple sparked the touch-screen revolution with its first iPhone nearly three years ago.

“Everyone wants to get something akin to the buzz Apple can get from dropping an iPhone in a bar,” says Richard Doherty, an analyst at Envisioneering. “I don’t know if it will work – but it is certainly very different to Apple.” The deliberate leaks are in marked contrast to the fierce secrecy insisted on by Apple chief Steve Jobs – a tactic which has the effect of stoking up even greater media frenzy around his set-piece product announcements.

Mr Denton’s assessment is more blunt. “Theirs are the tactics of losers,” he says of rivals’ attempts to steal Apple’s thunder.

The stakes – and the intensity of the phoney war being waged through the blogs – have gone up sharply in recent weeks. The one-two punch of Apple’s iPad, launched in April, and the next generation iPhone, expected in June, has threatened to suck the oxygen out of its rivals’ own marketing campaigns.

That appears to have led rivals to show more of their own hands. In early March, Gizmodo and Engadget fought with rival exclusives about Courier, a two-screen, Kindle-style e-reader device from Microsoft that so far only exists as an advanced prototype. A month later, days before the iPad hit the streets, Engadget was back with exclusive details about a HP slate, or tablet, computer. Among other things, the teaser campaigns raise questions about disclosure obligations, says Mr Doherty. The companies concerned refuse to discuss the leaks.

If it is too early to say how effective these new tactics will be, there are at least some clear winners. The blogs are revelling in their virtual media war: Gizmodo’s iPhone scoop attracted 3.6m visitors, four times the site’s normal traffic. And Apple, with a new version of the iPhone imminent, will soon be back hogging the headlines.

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