Microsoft’s live-action press release

Journalists hype the software giant's new tablet

Yesterday, Microsoft got a bunch of tech journalists to go to Hollywood for what it promised would be a major announcement: The company was launching its own tablet PC.

And what a launch it was—at least for the flacks and marketers at Microsoft, which has finally caught on (years later, true to form) to how Apple shapes the live press coverage of its product launches, which tend to turn a pack of hardened journalists into an infomercial audience:

I exaggerate, of course, but not by enough. These events have become a critical tool tech companies use to manipulate the press into largely uncritical reporting to create buzz about new products the journalists haven’t ever used.

You can see this even before the curtain rises with the staples of liveblogging a corporate-launch live-blogging: photos of all the people lining up to get in. Posts on how the journalist has entered the door of the venue. Descriptions and pictures of the stage and images inside the venue. What music is playing.

All those were on full display, as were a lot of exclamation marks, so I thought I would not-so-live-blog some of Microsoft’s favorite liveblog posts:

3:49 p.m.: The Wall Street Journal’s Scott Austin: “The line to get in stretches around the block.”

3:52 p.m.: Forbes’s Eric Savitz: “We’re in!”

3:54 p.m.: ABC News’s Joanna Stern: “There are images of a square on the screen!”

4:07 p.m.: Engadget’s Dana Wollman: “It’s about to go down, folks.”

4:11 pm: Wired’s Alexandra Chang: “The lights have dimmed and Steve Ballmer is taking the stage! Round of applause for Steve.”

4:11 p.m.: Forbes: “Here we go. CEO Steve Ballmer is on stage. Black pants. Blue shirt.”

4:11 p.m.: Engadget: “Ballmer takes the stage!”

4:11 p.m.: Wired, quoting Ballmer: “Windows has proven to be the most flexible, general purpose software ever created, spurring off an ecosystem of unrivaled success.”

4:12 p.m.: ABC got scooped: “And Ballmer is out!”

4:12 p.m.: WSJ’s Shira Ovide (who wins Most Appropriately Skeptical award, actually, along with The New York Times’s Nick Wingfield, whose live-tweeting gave me no material): “‘Windows is the heart and soul of Microsoft’ in everything the company does, he says.”

4:13 p.m.: WSJ’s Austin: “Again, this is all just pure speculation. What else is a blogger supposed to do awaiting a ‘mysterious announcement’?”

4:16 p.m.: ABC: “Rolling video now!”

4:17 p.m.: WSJ’s Ovide: “Ballmer rolls a video about Microsoft’s history of hardware innovation. The mouse! Nerdy photos of Bill Gates!”

4:17 p.m.: ABC: “Ballmer is back!”

4:21 p.m.: Tech journalist Farhad Manjoo, on Twitter: “SURFACE!”

4:25 p.m.: Microsoft’s Surface tablet crashes and Sinofsky has to swap for another one. ABC, the WSJ, and Forbes fail to report this.

4:26 p.m.: ABC: “This thing looks beautiful!”

4:28 p.m.: Business Insider’s Jay Yarow, who isn’t on-site, but who is, naturally, live-aggregating the liveblogging: “Microsoft built a kickstand into the tablet!”

4:29 p.m.: ABC: “Holy crap, I want this!”

4:31 p.m. Forbes: “But wait, there is more, says Sinofsky.”

4:38 p.m.: ABC: “I honestly cannot get one of these in my hands fast enough!”

4:41 p.m.: ABC: “I am actually blown away right now by Microsoft. I cannot believe they were able to keep this a secret.”

4:48 p.m.: Tech journalist Farhad Manjoo, on Twitter: “This is incredible and amazing. Microsoft’s presentation is showing level of hardware perfection we see with only one other company in tech.”

4:50 p.m.: Microsoft flack, responding to Manjoo’s tweet: “you are sold!”

4:54 p.m.: Engadget: “Man, I can’t wait to try this.”

4:56 p.m.: ABC: “I WANT ONE NOW!”

See what I mean about infomercial audiences?

These liveblogs were too busy slobbering over the Microsoft Surface to point out that it’s a recycled brand. When I hear Microsoft Surface, I think Big-Ass Table:

Anyway, the show ended and Microsoft let the rabid journalists have a couple of minutes to play with the Surface, which won’t be on sale for several months and whose price Microsoft wouldn’t reveal.

The keyboard cover so many of the press pack had gone gaga for half an hour earlier? Microsoft didn’t have it working yet, apparently. So, oops.

But it had its employees working to make sure the journalists assembled didn’t try to do much actual journalism. SearchEngineLand’s Danny Sullivan reports:

When I went to Desktop on Surface & selected Screen Resolution it was jerked out of my hands - “Nice trick” I was told

Which shows pretty clearly just how much these unveilings are about press manipulation (good for Sullivan for reporting this). Think of these events as live-action press releases, ads, and infomercials all rolled up into one. Would folks go all exclamation-pointy if Microsoft fanned out this information on PR Newswire?

As I wrote back in 2009:

It’s all carefully choreographed instanews that gives the reporter no chance to call, say, a skeptical analyst or a book publisher or really to add much context at all. In other words, by going along with this kind of thing, news organizations risk putting themselves in the business of advertising for the corporation—or at least issuing a sort of dynamic press release.

And much of the tech press still, with what’s no longer a new form, keeps playing along.

UPDATE: Reuters this morning, with the benefit of a few hours and some calls: “Microsoft Corp’s new tablet computers are no threat to Apple Inc’s iPad, given the lack of enthusiasm among developers to create applications that run on the new Windows operating system, analysts said.”

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,