the era of wysiwyg product announcements

Watching the Microsoft Surface announcement a few weeks ago, I was struck by the same things nearly everyone has commented on: the wooden delivery, the crashes, the interesting ideas coupled with Microsoft’s equivocations on what should constitute the best experience (“It has a soft keyboard, and a real keyboard that is kind of like a soft keyboard, and a real keyboard that is more like a typical keyboard and… a pen!”).

Yet, something kept bugging me, until it suddenly hit me: Microsoft was announcing a product that wasn’t ready.

Pre-announcing. This used to be how things were done. Back in the day when CES, COMDEX (remember COMDEX?) and other similar conferences ruled the roost, products were announced and demo’ed with great fanfare months and months (sometimes a year or more) before they were available. Demo followed by demo, release date changes, multi-year development cycles. In the 90s and early 2000s these events were the rule, not the exception. We even had an acronym to go along with this way of announcing products: FUD, where the announcement was made only to scare off the competition or to create pressure even when the product being announced didn’t actually exist.

This is no longer how product releases are done, however. We could even draw a faint analogy to personal computer UIs in the 80s, when MacOS brought WYSIWYG to personal computers. It used to be “what you see is what you’ll get…maybe…eventually” and now it’s pretty much “what you see is what you get.” Products are announced and often available the same day, or within a few weeks at most. There’s almost no daylight between a product’s announcement and its wide availability. As with many things in recent years, we can credit Apple with having changed the game.

By and large, Apple no longer pre-announces products. The one glaring exception is operating systems and developer tools, where you need some degree of “pre-announcing” to get developers on board so that at release the new OS & toolkits are supported by 3rd party apps. It’s much more a situation of announcing the developer version (and its immediate availability), followed by an announcement of the consumer version. OS X Mountain Lion, most recently, was announced for consumer release about a month and a half prior to wide availability, and that’s probably as close as you can get it if you want to give 3rd party developers some time to adjust to the final version of the OS.

In the case of Apple, this is in keeping with their theory of product design, in which they “know what’s best.” If you’re not really going to adjust that much to input from others, what’s the point in pre-announcing?

That’s not the whole story though. There are other factors at play. Rumors and analysis for upcoming products now spread faster and earlier than ever before. In the 90s speculation about new products was much more limited, most of the activity was around information provided by the company in the first place, whoever they were. With blogs and news sites that publish almost anything they get their hands on, rumors, spy photos & video coming from all corners of the globe (including from production lines), there’s now a constant drumbeat of essentially free PR for new products that didn’t exist even a few years ago. From a PR perspective, what would be the value of squashing a rumor with actual information (say, of the resolution of the next iPhone’s camera, to name just one thing)? People would a) stop speculating, leading to fewer articles, and b) start criticizing the actual choice without having the product in front of them, which is also bad. The only time I remember Apple “breaking” this rule was with the announcement of the original iPhone, almost a full 6 months before its release, but in that case there was already a fever pitch of speculation and they knew that the product spec would get out partially in government documents related to FCC testing and whatnot, so controlling the story was more important than waiting for availability.

Another key factor is that Apple has demonstrated they can sustain an extraordinarily stable release cycle for their devices. iPhones & iPods (plus iOS) in early Fall. iPads in early Spring. Major updates for Macs (plus OS X) in the summer. No doubt there are internal reasons why keeping this cycle makes sense, in terms of component updates and such as well as to create a general development pace, but it also has the side-effect that the speculation and rumors have rough targets and therefore they start to “seed”, on cue, information and expectation for the upcoming product, all without Apple spending a single cent.

Incidentally, I think this was also a key reason why Apple stopped going to conferences like CES years ago. They want to control their schedule, they don’t want to be forced to announce products in January when they may be available in August. And the always-on, rumor-fueled digital news cycle lets them do just that.

So I think that in this case Apple has adapted to a new world were you don’t need a constant drumbeat of PR to remind people that a new product is coming, blogs & news sites do it for you. Others, like Google, have partially adapted to this by centering major announcements around Google I/O, but they still release products at random times, losing some of the steam that an increase in rumor and expectation would provide.

And Microsoft? They appear to be stuck in the 1990s. They attempted to replicate the pageantry associated with Apple events without the substance. The Surface announcement came out of the blue (up to the announcement, speculation was all over the place, mostly focusing on the announcement having something to do with Xbox). In and of itself this isn’t a bad thing, but surprises aren’t always good, particularly when followed by lots of unknowns. The software crashed during the demo, and they didn’t let anyone touch the devices, leading to (justified) speculation that they just weren’t ready. They didn’t announce a release date. They didn’t announce pricing. They left pretty much everything important open to speculation while showing enough to quash many rumors, so criticism and opinions appear to be based in fact. (Non-tech people I know that don’t follow these things closely actually thought that Microsoft had released the device). The worst of both worlds.

Some of Microsoft’s missteps in this area probably relate to the fact that they coupled to some degree parts of the Windows 8 announcement with the tablets, and for Windows 8 you need to bring OEMs to fall in line (not to mention the Windows Phone 78 incompatibility issues floating out there as well), a problem Apple doesn’t have. With so many versions and variants it’s difficult for one single product to pack a lot of punch in terms of mindshare.

We’ll have to wait and see if Microsoft is able to adapt to the new way of doing things now that Windows 8, even with all its variants, presents a more cohesive picture of where they want to go and perhaps allows them to create a more stable release cycle. In the meantime, Apple will continue to leverage WYSIWYG product announcements to their advantage.