News Analysis: Here is how Microsoft went about putting free laptops into the hands of bloggers.
Microsofts latest attempt to curry public favor began on its community-site The Hive. Microsoft is doing it this time by giving bloggers free, expensive laptops.
The Hive was launched by Microsoft in the summer of 2005. At the time, Microsoft said the Hive was aimed at online leaders who specialize in consumer-oriented applications of Windows and other Microsoft technologies, such as digital photography, gaming, multimedia, home-finance and the like.
Microsoft officials also said they want The Hive to be a community that is run by the third parties, not by Microsoft.
"We want to get peers to interact with each other in a safe environment," said Josh Levine, group product manager with Windows client communities. "We (Microsoft) will provide the server space and prizes [for forum participation, etc.]. Well also provide some content. The community members will be the [forum] moderators."
The Hive, Levine said, was not meant to be a marketing initiative. "If youre going to buy a new Acura, you go to Consumer Reports, not the car vendors Web sites," Levine said, in explaining Microsofts goal of keeping the site independent. Then, in this December, Microsoft and AMD, via the Edelman public relations company, has been offering free, loaded laptops to certain bloggers.
The letter, which was obtained from a blogger who got one, read: "You remember that on The Hive Aaron had some good news for the Featured Communitieswell, that package is almost ready to be sent. Wed love to send you a loaded system courtesy of Windows Vista and AMD, but need your mailing address and phone to get this rolling."
Aaron is Aaron Coldiron. He is a Microsoft product manager. In the past, he ran the Microsofts Mindshare user group support program. He is also, as one Hive member put it, "the face of the hive."
The note went on, "This would be a review machinewed love to hear your opinion on the machine and the OS (Windows Vista Ultimate). Full disclosure: While we hope youll blog about your experience with the PC, you dont have to. Also, you are welcome to send the machine back to us after you are done playing with it, or you can give it away to your community, or you can keep it. My recommendation is that you give it away on your site, but its your call. Just do us the courtesy of letting us know your opinion of Windows Vista and what you plan to do with the system when the time comes."
According to Microsoft blogger Long Zheng, his Ferrari 5000 came with an AMD Turion 64 X2 dual-core 2GHz CPU, 2GB of DDR2-667 RAM, AMD-ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 graphics, and a 15.4-inch widescreen LCD. It also has a 160GB SATA drive, HD-DVD reader and burner, and a 1.3 megapixel camera. The system would cost approximately $2,299.
Vista Ultimate, the top of the Vista line, is expected to sell for $399 full retail, with an upgrade price of $259.
Click here to read more about Vista Ultimate.
The note concluded, "Just confirm you are game by sending me your mailing address and phone, and Ill do the rest. Aaron is going to send out systems next week, so if you will be traveling on the 22nd let me know where youll be, and well send it there."
This was not, however, the first time that Microsoft offered free, high-end hardware to bloggers. Microsoft blogger and Microsoft Expert Zone columnist Barb Bowmantold her readers that, "On 12/13 Microsoft and AMD asked if I wanted a custom built Vista Media Center from Velocity Micro. An eval I could use, talk about and then later either return to MS, give away, or keep. I checked the email for spoofed headers because I just dont get emails like that every day. Its the nicest desktop Ive ever seen by far. The proc is X2 5000, ASUS mobo, SATA all the way, ATI x1950, ATI Theater Pro 660 tuner, and of course Windows Vista Ultimate. I also discovered that a full copy of Office 2007 was also pre-installed. And a 64 bit version of CA eTrust AV."
Bowman reported that, "Ive never seen a computer this slick and fast. And did I mention that Vista ROCKS?"
One blogger, Marshall Kirkpatrick, is now reporting that since the free hardware story has been exposed to the light of day that Microsoft wants its laptops back.
The note from Coldiron read: "No good deed goes unpunished, right? You may have seen that other bloggers got review machines as well. Some of that coverage was not factual. As you write your review I just wanted to emphasize that this is a review PC. I strongly recommend you disclose that we sent you this machine for review, and I hope you give your honest opinions. Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding of our intentions Im going to ask that you either give the PC away or send it back when you no longer need it for product reviews."
Kirkpatrick, however, doesnt see what the fuss is all about. "Microsoft and AMD sent out a pile of very expensive (yet trashy looking) laptops to a number of bloggers over the past week. We were told we could keep themnow after a day of minor outrage by some people they are emailing us back with the following request that we not keep them after all! And to think, I almost smashed mine in the middle of the street 10 minutes into trying to use it! I did figure out some of the basics after awhile, but its still nothing life-changing. OK, so obviously Im being a bit snotty here and am in a position of ridiculous privilege to get one of these things for freeI just dont think its anything to get your knickers in a twist about given the state of the world."
Well-known Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble doesnt see what the trouble is, either. He thinks that giving away the laptops is: "a GREAT idea. After all, how can anyone have a decent conversation about Windows Vista without having put a bunch of time on one of the machines?"
However, "Regarding blogger ethics. Did you disclose? If you did, you have ethics. If you didnt, you dont. Its that black and white with me," said Scoble.
Other bloggers, like Joel Spolsky,sees the free laptops in an entirely different light.
"The theory here is that if a blogger admits to receiving a gift, the reader can make up their mind as to whether that blogger has any credibility on this topic.
"Effectively Microsoft has bought publicity and goodwill. And even though the blogger has fully disclosed what happened, their message is corrupting the medium."
Thus, for Spolsky, "The only conclusion I can come to is that this is ethically indistinguishable from bribery."
When Microsofts public relations department was asked about the matter, it deferred the questions to Edelman. The PR company had not replied by the time this article was published.
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Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is editor at large for Ziff Davis Enterprise. Prior to becoming a technology journalist, Vaughan-Nichols worked at NASA and the Department of Defense on numerous major technological projects. Since then, he's focused on covering the technology and business issues that make a real difference to the people in the industry.