At least half a dozen of my friends and colleagues are at the Mobile World Congress at Barcelona. And every single one of them knew almost exactly what they were going to be seeing at what stall even before they had made their way to the Spanish city. Nokia would be updating some of its range and focusing on its five camera phone, Huawei would show a folding phone, Samsung would show the S10 and a folding phone… and these were not known just by name, but in enough detail – in most cases, my friends knew what the device would look like and what its specifications would be. “I don’t even know why I am going,” one of them muttered. “Everything is pretty much known to everyone everywhere.”
And this is not an aberration. Xiaomi is set to launch the Redmi Note 7 in a couple of days, and barring the price and perhaps the odd minor detail, just about everything about the phone is very well known. The source is not even a leak – the company itself has released a video featuring its brand ambassador with the device.
Welcome to the era where tech events and launches have become “leak confirmations” and “price announcements”.
Some will rightly point out that leaks have always been a part of tech life. True enough, but in the past, or at least until about 2016, there was an element of investigation involved in them. Tech writers and bloggers would haunt company cafes and outlets, trying to get a whiff of what was happening. Conclusions would be drawn based on something as vague as a screen protector or a bumper case – “if the bumper is this big, the chances are that the phone itself cannot be too large,” and so on. And well, in the rare case where someone actually managed to get a pre-launch device that had not be officially handed out, all kinds of hell would break loose from the company’s side (remember Apple and the iPhone 4?).
Yes, there would be the odd case of a company giving people a glimpse of a future product just to take the sting out of a rival product’s launch – we do remember IBM suddenly giving out extra details about the forthcoming edition of Lotus Notes (remember them?) just prior to the launch of a new edition of MS Office. But these were not too common. For the most part, companies liked to keep their product cards close to their chests – for the very simple reason that giving out too much information would also give the competition an idea of what you yourself were doing. Companies like Apple were known to be almost paranoid when it came to protecting information about their products – and publications that got products through “unofficial” sources before launch often ran the risk of being blacklisted.
All that however seemed to change a few years ago.
Perhaps it was because of the arrival of a number of new brands. Perhaps it was because of what some of my colleagues claim is a “leak culture” that is popular in the Chinese market and this period also saw the rise of Chinese brands like Xiaomi, OnePlus and Huawei. Whatever it was, suddenly leaks became almost part of company policy. Instead of having to secretly meet company executives to be given hidden glimpses of a forthcoming product, suddenly we were being called to the main office and being told to experience the product “off the record.” Today, things have reached such a pass that many companies send out official emails with “leaks” and even propose headings for articles and tweets about them. The leak of a product no longer provokes outrage but is now met with a shrug of the shoulders because hey, it is a fair chance that someone from the company already knew about it. Even the mighty Cupertino bastion seems to have fallen with people having known about the new iPhones and iPads weeks and months before their official launch and unveiling.
All of which is great news for consumers and companies both at some level. For consumers, well, they get access to product information well before a formal launch, and a lot of it is credible. For companies, the level of publicity and curiosity around a product or service always results in more publicity. And of course, the institutionalization of leaks means that there are more stories for bloggers and writers and for the comms teams of different brands – even embargo letters have got complex, with different dates being given for revelations about packaging, cameras, design, price and so on and so forth.
All of this has, however, pretty much destroyed the level of curiosity around product launches and tech events. Indeed, these events now largely exist to “gather a crowd” (them Gladiator “are you not entertained?” feels) and to confirm what leaks have so often already revealed. The only news at these events ever so often is the price and availability of the device (and even those are sometimes leaked out). I have lost count of the number of media persons who have attended events with their reports already written out, and an empty space left for the price.
Is this good or bad? I do not know. But yes, the temptation to attend events – unless one wants to meet someone or pick up a goodie bag – is diminishing by the day. There is very little excitement and even lesser curiosity. Because everything is pretty much out of the bag. I cannot remember the last tech event I attended without having a very good idea both what was being launched, almost all its features and sometimes, even its price.
Launches with surprises? One more thing? Folks, those went out with Steve.