Microsoft proves adept at building a new kind of buzz

Could Microsoft, which sometimes introduces products half a decade before they're real, have decided to copy Apple again?

Could Microsoft, which sometimes introduces products half a decade before they're real, have decided to copy Apple again?

As industry analysts suggested, according to last Monday's New York Times, it seems "Microsoft, which has traditionally generated little suspense with its product announcements, was trying to steal a page from Apple Computer's playbook by fueling anticipation with secrecy."

Maybe. But the "Origami affair," as I will call it, was less secret than the standard Apple affair, even if it was about a product that brought to mind a product Apple essentially created more than a decade ago. (That product, the Newton hand-held, failed miserably.)

Yes, it's all somewhat confusing. But the buzz that was moving through the gadget and tech communities early last week is worth pondering and not solely because Microsoft was involved. We're witnessing some big changes in product PR and marketing.

In this case, Microsoft launched a Web site called www.origamiproject.com, which turned out to be a Flash presentation urging people to tune in March 2 for an announcement of something that would "change your life" in an obviously cool way. Then, some bloggers uncovered a video of what appeared to be an ad for a Microsoft hand-held device called, that's right, Origami. Meanwhile, the Engadget site had a photo of the device, which looks to be roughly the size of the ill-fated Apple Newton from the 1990s.

Because I'm writing this before March 2, I can't tell you what, precisely, is on tap. But if this is a new touch-screen hand-held PC, aimed primarily at the video and audio markets, but with browsing and other more traditional capabilities, Microsoft is launching it in a fairly smart way.

The rumor mongering that races through the blogosphere can lead to a crescendo of buzz and, thereby, real interest from buyers and journalists that a company can be targeting. Apple, even though it has been arrogant, is a prime beneficiary of this method.

Of course, the eventual real news needs to justify rumors. Apple tends to have enough genuine innovation that even when extravagant predictions turn out to be false, the products are still at least interesting.

I doubt we'll ever know how much of the Origami buzz was intentional. Arranging to leave little puzzle clues scattered around the Internet would be clever, however, and Microsoft employs extremely smart PR and marketing folks who would know how to do this.

How much of this is marketing, and how much is PR? I don't know the difference anymore; both are about getting a message out to constituencies that include potential customers and media alike. The weekend online Origami buzz, after all, was sufficiently strong to attract the attention of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among others.

All I know for sure is that whatever Microsoft was trying, it seemed to work.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. His blog is at bayosphere.com/blog/dangillmor. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.com/blog).

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