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Controlled Smartphone Leaks: An Old But Important Strategy (Updated)

by Todd Haselton | July 15, 2013July 15, 2013 12:00 pm PDT

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I just spent a week on vacation trying to disconnect for a few days. As someone who writes about tech, that can be pretty tough when there’s a constant flow of leaks.

I often found myself heading to my room to catch up on the industry news on my tablet or laptop while the rest of my family hit the beach or caught up on some reading on the porch. I noticed a few Moto X stories last week, and the frequency of spy photos related to the One Mini and the One Max seems to increase by the day. I don’t think this is the work of gumshoeing – with the Moto X it all seems to be planned.

Just a few days ago Eric Schmidt was caught using the Moto X, for example. And we saw a similar occurrence when BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins was spotted – in a high quality photo nonetheless – using a BlackBerry Z10 courtside at a basketball game before the phone’s launch. This isn’t by happenstance, it’s planned.

Controlled leaks aren’t new – they’ve been happening for as long as I can remember, and you might be surprised that they are often initiated by high level executives at phone makers and carriers alike. It’s just a new form of marketing, though it’s admittedly a bit weird. The idea is to help build hype around a smartphone before it’s launched, but without revealing everything about the device. We might get a few tidbits on what the phone looks like from the back, or maybe what kind of new display technology the phone might pack, and it keeps us guessing and writers reporting on each new phone. It creates headlines. It makes stories. And it gets customers excited, likely in the hopes that these customers will hold out on buying any other device in the meantime.

Not too long ago we learned that Evan Blass is behind the Twitter account @evleaks, which has published accurate information for a variety of sites on new smartphones. In an interview with Android Police last month, Blass said that Nokia and HTC “regularly” invited him to drinks and gave him the information to leak. Update:  Blass told us the quote above was sarcasm, though that sort of technique is not uncommon.

By controlling a leak, a company can make sure that the facts are accurate. If it has any suspicions that someone else might leak a device, the firm can make sure that the expectations for a new phone, whether it’s the HTC One Mini or the Moto X, are in-line with launch plans. A leak detailing an octo-core phone could be wrong and throw consumers off, but a leak detailing the correct processor, specs and release timeframe can help HTC, Nokia or any other firm give consumers just enough information to build excitement.

I come from a print background where we were often let in on smartphone launch plans months in advance. We had to know about launches in order to make room in our magazine for reviews of the new devices, or cover space if required. A lot of the units were pre-production, as I’m sure some of the leaks are, which is to say they aren’t final hardware and oftentimes definitely not final software. Though, in the case of press images, these are often already created so that publications with long lead times – months away from now, for example – can have high-resolution photos for stories that are ready for newsstands when a product launches.

I often think Apple works similarly, though with dropped hints to major publications like The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Bloomberg to suggest that new products are coming – or an announcement is near. This can be valuable for Apple, especially if it takes the collective consumer mind away from another company. We’ve seen Apple use a similar strategy, when it announced the iPad event during the 2012 IFA tradeshow in Berlin, essentially draining all news coverage from the event for a few hours.

The leaks can be awkward to cover, especially if there are a group of journalists sitting under a NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) who can’t comment on a story. Sometimes a few of us in the industry might be treated to an early look to give feedback on a device ahead of the launch – but that can make covering leaks difficult, especially if we can’t say that we’ve seen it or not.

I’m not bashing the leaks or those who publish them – it’s just the way the industry is headed and how marketing is starting to work. You, as readers, should know why it’s happening and so often.

I think, eventually, we’re all going to get so used to leaks that they won’t seem as exciting anymore. Nokia, HTC and other companies need to realize that, with too many leaks, the excitement for any new product essentially becomes watered-down and boring. As is the case with what’s happening now with the Moto X and the HTC One Mini – had we been left in the dark, maybe we’d still have something to look forward to.


Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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