Funny thing happened the other day, which I must recount. I won't name the company involved, for obvious reasons, but trust me that it was a reasonably sizeable name (no, that isn't a clue).
I went to a press briefing, probably two weeks ago by the time you read this, to launch a digital video product for consumers. The product, incidentally, is very new but it is about to be sold to the public in a matter of weeks. Part of the product involved a DVD-ROM drive implemented in a novel way. As with all new product launches, it was described as revolutionary, world's first, ground-breaking and so forth.
(By the way, a memo to any PR people reading this: technology writers never believe you when you say something is revolutionary, world's first or ground-breaking. If the tech industry really broke ground every time it said it did, the planet would have been pulverised by now. And saying `world's first' only forces us to try and think of similar products that came out sooner - an unwanted distraction, I'm sure you'll agree.)But I digress. Basically, the company had, in its materials and publicity prior to the event, expressed every confidence that we would show up and be enthralled at its newly completed goodies. This thingy whatsit was going to change the way we watched movies. Personally, I watch movies by sitting in front of them with my eyes open and dividing my attention between screen, popcorn and cola. If anyone has a different way, I'd be intrigued to hear it.
At the launch, I grabbed a smoked salmon munchie and approached one of the gleaming units on display. I began watching a movie on said DVD-ROM drive, and a press dude gravitated towards me, spiel at the ready. `Compare that to the quality you get from VHS,' he said, `and you'd be amazed by the increased clarity and sharpness of the image.'
He was about to move on to the next phase of the spiel, probably having to do with still frames would be my guess, when I interrupted rudely. `Is that software decoding, or hardware?' I asked, clearly not overcome by enthralledness. I was, in fact, seriously lacking on the old thrall-o-meter. He didn't answer very quickly, so I rudely continued, `because I'm seeing a lot of artefacts, and the lip synch isn't very good.'
At this, the press dude kind of retreated, smiling broadly and muttering something about needing to check with someone else about the answers to my very good and pertinent question. Clearly I knew what I was talking about, have some more of the salmon and he'll be right back, and so forth. I think he wanted to break my knees then and there, but knew that if he had I'd be naming the company now. Ah, the power of the press.
OK, I might not be naming the company now, but as soon as I got out of traction I'd have written a stern column.
After some more fiddling with the product and salmon munchies, I sat down for the `formal presentation' bit of the launch. When the company exec type person got to the demonstration of the DVD component, he played exactly the same part of exactly the same movie I'd been watching earlier. But here's the interesting bit: instead of the `clarity and sharpness' spiel, executive dude prefaced the demo with the disclaimer, `of course, you have to remember this is a pre-release product, so you may see some, um, artefacts, and the, uh, lip synch may not be very good'. Press dude was nowhere to be seen, but I suspect a quick and quiet briefing was had backstage before the show went on.
I have no idea whether executive dude knew what `artefacts' or `lip synch' meant. I'm prepared to give him the benefit and say he did, but he sounded awfully awkward saying the words. And up until that moment there had been no indication whatsoever that what we were seeing was not the final product.
I've commented before on software going through innumerable `beta' stages before going `final', rather than uttering the unspeakable name of `gamma'. This is, however, the first time I've seen a product go, right before my eyes, from `final' to `pre-production', and I wonder if it is by this circuitous route that `gamma' products are created.
If there's a moral here, I don't know what it is. Only ever show final products after they work? No, most of the really interesting product demos have outrageous bugs. Don't invite me? Maybe, but I'm such a nice guy.
How about this: if you serve nice salmon, I won't name names.
Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@ idg.com.au