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The problem with product leaks

Everything leaks, so now companies are announcing products far too early just to beat the leakers. Even that is risky.

Published onOctober 27, 2019

Product leaks happen. They’re a core part of the tech industry trinity of hype, release, and backlash. There are accidental leaks, planned leaks, logistical leaks, and dozens more in between. Leaks help create buzz around an upcoming product, yes. But they can also dramatically diminish a product’s impact when the curtains are finally drawn back. Sometimes it feels like we’re collectively suffering from leak overload. Nothing is surprising anymore, nothing exciting.

Take the new NVIDIA Shield TV, which some of us have been anxiously awaiting for years. The Shield goes on sale on Monday but appeared briefly on Amazon over a week ago and then on physical Best Buy shelves this week. Given the full specs are now known, there’s very little we don’t know about the new Shield. What’s there to get excited about? I’m still glad it’s coming, but I’m sad it wasn’t a surprise.

Then there’s the saga that was the Google Pixel 4.

NVIDIA Shield TV Stick Cross Sections

The Pixel 4 problem

The Pixel 4 leaked by accident, then officially, then in full hands-on videos a month in advance. Once those flood gates opened, the Pixel 4 leaks came practically every day. At first, Google was congratulated for leaking its own phone on social media, for taking the reins and steering the narrative. But once the leaks started, they didn’t stop, and things only got worse. You couldn’t not know everything about the Pixel 4.

The biggest surprise these days is if a product doesn't leak, but practically all big products do.

We like leaks. All publications like ours do. And so do you. Yet it feels like the leak economy has gotten out of control. The biggest surprise these days is if a product doesn’t leak, but practically all big products do. Many with early access will follow the non-disclosure rules, but just as many will not. So what is the solution?

Google Pixel 4 hands on video

Early announcement

Some companies think the leaks should be replaced with early announcements. Google even did this with the Pixel Buds 2. They were at the Made by Google event but we couldn’t listen to them and they won’t be on sale until Spring 2020. A proud Googler even told me “ours was the only product not leaked.”

The reasoning here is that now they’re out in the open, Google can work on bugs and fine-tuning them without worrying about someone being caught wearing a pair on San Francisco’s BART or in the streets of Mountain View. The logic seems to be that once the cat is out of the bag, it doesn’t matter how many more times it escapes.

Announcing a product early is little more than an attempt to beat the leakers.

Microsoft did something similar recently with the Surface Duo, a twin-phone tablet foldable thing that won’t be available for more than a year. Microsoft says it needs the time between now and then to work with developers on app support, but this could easily have been done in secret. Announcing a product early is little more than an attempt to beat the leakers.

The problem is that Microsoft now has an additional burden of it’s own creation. It must now live up to a year’s worth of hype and speculation and maybes, all played out in the court of public opinion.

microsoft surface duo 6

Failure to launch

As with most new products, the possibilities imagined by fans often outstrip what’s possible for engineers, and disappointment ensues. To make things even worse, next year Microsoft needs to get us excited all over again about a product we’ve known about for over a year. These are not small problems and they’re problems Microsoft wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been so keen to beat the leaks.

When you're a long way out from releasing a product there's also the risk of a failure to launch. Take Apple's AirPower for example.

Pre-announcements have another downside. When you’re that far out from releasing a product there’s also the risk of a failure to launch. Take Apple’s AirPower wireless charging pad for example. Announced in 2017 for a 2018 launch and abandoned entirely in 2019, AirPower did little more than create a PR headache for Apple. It also provided a product blueprint for other companies to blatantly emulate and profit from. What could’ve been a win for Apple became a gift for its competition instead.

Apple AirPower

At a smaller scale, the same can be said of the Red Hydrogen Two. The original was an unmitigated disaster and no one would have blamed Red for scrapping the idea of a Hydrogen Two as folly. Yet, Red continued to talk up a successor right up until Red founder Jim Jannard announced his retirement and the cancellation of the entire Hydrogen project this week.

Any hype and interest created at the outset is at risk of souring to distrust and suspicion by the end.

In both of these cases, the desire to build hype with early teasers and pre-emptive announcements achieved less than nothing. Any hype and interest created at the outset soured to distrust and suspicion by the end. In both instances, Apple and Red would have been better off saying nothing.

Where to from here?

I don’t know what the solution to the leak problem is, but I don’t think it’s premature announcement. That creates as many — or more — problems as it solves. The same is true of some companies this year not holding advance briefings for their devices. The leaks still happened, they just didn’t come from the media.

The leaks will keep coming as long as products are shipped to retailers and carriers in advance, as long as briefings and demos are held, as long as people have smartphones with cameras and an interest in making a splash on social media. Come launch day, we’re always going to know what the product looks like and most if not all of its specs. As an industry, the cat is very much out of the bag, the genie out of the bottle.

If we still want to enjoy product releases, it’s on us to shift where we put our focus — to change what we get excited for — because it can no be longer in the pre-launch unknown. The Google Pixel 4 has been called “the most leaked phone ever” and yet, with it, I had the most fun I’ve had with a phone in years, taking astro mode photos with friends for the review. One week later and I’m out with friends doing the same thing again.

Do I wish there were more Pixel 4 surprises on launch day? Sure. Would I trade them for the surprises that came afterward? No chance.

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