- 27 Nov 08, 17:51 GMT
Who or what decides whether a new gadget flies - or fails? Is it the quality and quantity of the advertising? The reviews in newspapers and magazines? Word of mouth among consumers? Or, in the UK at least, could it be the views of Stephen Fry?
In the old days, any new product launched by a major consumer brand was accompanied by a marketing blitz that would almost guarantee decent early sales. Then eventually the reviews in newspapers and specialist magazines and word-of-mouth from happy or disgruntled consumers would determine whether a new car, camera - or mobile phone - would be a long-term hit or miss.
Now the whole process has been accelerated by the web and is far more difficult for companies to control, with early pictures and opinions emerging online before the real "specialists" have had a chance to deliver their judgment. But with so many different views of products - from technology blogs, from specialist online forums, from any old Facebook friend - it becomes difficult for consumers to filter the noise and get a clear view. That is where a "trusted guide" like Stephen Fry comes in.
As well as being a much-loved entertainer, Mr Fry has built a reputation as one of Britain's most knowledgeable gadget lovers - though as the second person in the UK to buy a Mac (after Douglas Adams), his passion for anything made by Apple is pretty clear. He is particularly keen on smartphones and has written at length about the various delights and disappointments of using them.
So along comes the Blackberry Storm, with an avalanche of advertising from Vodafone - which has the exclusive contract in Britain - and plenty of excitable speculation amongst the kind of people who really, really care about whether a new mobile phone has wi-fi, and whether it can turn the bath on before they get home.
Then on Twitter, where he has quickly built an audience of more than 20,000 followers, came this series of messages from Stephen Fry:
"Been playing with the BB Storm. Shockingly bad. I mean embarrassingly awful. Such a disappointment. Rushed out unfinished. What a pity."
"Yes, I blame n'works more than RIM. Problems are terrible lag: inaccurate t'screen, awful, slow and fiddly text input. I SO wanted to like it."
"Plus the GPS maps won't work - issue with BIS connections. I see from forums postings this is widespread in the UK. iPhone killer? Ha!"
Those short bursts of instant reaction were then recycled and passed on by other Twitter users. As the "Twitterati" tend to be early adopters who are likely customers for new smartphones, this is a more important audience than its numbers might suggest.
Mr Fry was by no means the only expert to be deeply unimpressed by BlackBerry's new baby. David Pogue of the New York Times, another very influential technology pundit, has also given it a stinker, and his views are now racing around networks like Twitter.
I'm sure there will still be some decent sales figures for the Storm in the early weeks - unless that advertising blitz has been completely misdirected - but what a high-end product like this need is a buzz of anticipation and that's been silenced by Messrs Fry and Pogue.
So a couple of "trusted guides" - or "super-advocates" as someone else described them - could have sealed the fate of a product of huge importance to both RIM and Vodafone. What's the lesson for the gadget-makers? Maybe they need to spend more time hanging out on social networks and listening to what is being said. Or perhaps they should get their products thoroughly tested by Stephen Fry and David Pogue before they are launched - rather than sit and watch their damning views go viral.
And having had my say, what does Stephen Fry himself think? I asked him - this was his response:
Crumbs Rory! Do I have the power to kill a gadget? Of course, like all pusillanimous people I enjoy the idea that I could make a gadget - but break one?
If I really thought my influence was that great it might make me a little wary of being quite so definite and it would probably force me to be more specific about all the features/pricing/services, as a responsible tech journalist should be. As it is, I hope people know I am no more than an enthusiastic, passionate amateur (I'm including the French sense of the word amateur - lover). It gives me no pleasure to be negative about the BB Storm and I know that many people have been looking forward to receipt of theirs and were very disheartened to hear my loud disappointment. But, honestly: play with the Storm for two days as I have and you will admire my patience at not throwing it out of the window... I do like the Bold though. Could live with that. But to return to your point. The net should make us all equal in our influence. Okay - more equal.
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