Apple builds tablet buzz with silence, say experts

Steve Jobs - Co-founder Apple

Steve Jobs - Co-founder Apple

Apple's ability to spawn massive interest in its still-unannounced tablet is based on a respectable track record and keeping its corporate mouth shut, experts said today.

"Success breeds success," said Michael Gartenberg, vice president of strategy and analysis at market research firm Interpret LLC, when asked how Apple manages to build such serious buzz for a product no one has seen , and about which Apple has breathed not one word.

"Apple has a track record of delivering," he said.

Kathy Sharpe, the chief executive of the Manhattan-based digital marketing firm Sharpe Partners, agreed. "Apple keeps coming out with things that are game changing," said Sharpe. "People pay attention because they get it right, even if the product doesn't work in at first, like the original iPod and the iPhone."

Apple's San Francisco event tomorrow is expected to showcase a new device -- a 10-in. or 7-in. tablet -- but the company has said nothing other than to promise something new. "The new products we are planning to release this year are very strong, starting this week with a major new product that we're really excited about," said CEO Steve Jobs in a statement released just before Monday's earnings call .

"It's a great tool that's an integral part of their marketing," said Stephen Baker, an analyst with retail research company The NPD Group, talking about the vaunted secrecy Apple maintains prior to a new product launch.

"Silence fuels speculation, speculation fuels rumor," said Gartenberg. "But by saying nothing, they haven't promised anything, so they don't really have to deliver [on the rumors]." Even so, Apple faces some risk by letting others manage the message, even if, as some have claimed, the company judiciously leaks information to selected reporters.

"The danger is that the speculation is going to get ahead of what you're going to deliver," Gartenberg added.

The risk is small, countered Baker, who reminded everyone that it's not as if this kind of attention is commonplace. "This really only happens every two or three years," Baker said. "Even Apple can't do this all the time. You didn't see this when they put a video camera in the [iPod] Nano, did you?"

The last time anyone was able to hype a product announcement at this scale without saying anything was three years ago this month, when Jobs pulled the first-generation iPhone out of his pocket, Baker said.

Apple's secrecy and its ceding the table to rumors is good marketing, said Sharpe, because it gets consumers involved. "The secrecy makes it much easier for Apple to generate buzz. No one knows what this is, so it could be the next iPhone...or the next Newton," she said, referring to the MessagePad personal data assistant that Apple introduced in 1993 to much fanfare but lackluster sales.

"That's part of the mystery. Because we're all in the dark, it's a great equalizer. No one has the story first," Sharpe continued. "That makes consumers feel a little important."

Even after the tablet is unveiled, Apple won't have much to say in how consumers perceive the device, little more than it did when it kept its month shut leading up to the event, argued Baker. "Afterward, the majority of people [commenting on the Web] will be talking about what it doesn't have, what it doesn't do," he said. "There won't be a lot of accentuation of the positive. They want to keep talk of the tablet amped, and the way to do that is to go negative, after you've gone positive."

Speaking of buzz, Computerworld blogger Seth Weintraub will live-blog Apple's Wednesday event .

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld . Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , send e-mail to gkeizer@ix.netcom.com or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed .

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