Lies, damned lies, and technology hype

Apple's hype machine was in overdrive at this week's WWDC, but it's not the only tech company stretching the truth

Hyperbole seems to be an inevitable by product of new technology; you build a new gizmo, you end up getting a certain amount of hype all over your clothes. But lately the hype has been gushing out faster than an oil under the Gulf of Mexico.

Case in point: This week's Apple Worldwide Developer's Conference. Nobody can whip up a batch of delicious cream-filled hype like Steve Jobs, and Monday's keynote was like watching Julia Child prepare a souffle.

[ Also on InfoWorld: If they're not trying to fool us, they're trying to steal our brains, as Cringely warns in "Danger, danger! Tech overload ahead" | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Unfortunately, Jobs seems to have tripped over the line where hype ends and falsehoods begin. For example, Jobs claimed the iPhone 4 offers a "retina display," a disturbingly anatomical description of the phone's 300-dpi screen that calls up unpleasant images from "Minority Report."

No, the new iPhone 4 can not scan your soul (despite what some people might tell you). But it also doesn't have a resolution higher than what the human retina can perceive, according to DisplayMate Technologies, as reported by PC World's Jason Cross.

Jobs also implied that the iPhone 4's new FaceTime app makes it the first to be able to make cell-phone video calls. The ExtraLast blog points out that the first video-call-enabled handsets appeared in 2005; the Unthinkable blog notes the other ways in which the iPhone is playing catchup on videoconferencing.

And Apple (though not Jobs specifically) claims its new Safari 5 browser is "the world's fastest." As IT Blogwatch's Richi Jennings notes, several bloggers have leapt in to differ, with Conceivably Tech's Wolfgang Gruener being the most blunt:

Apple is the opposite of modesty and in some cases, rightfully so. But in other cases, the company's claims do not support reality and its modesty may expose the company with its pants down. In case of its latest Safari browser, the statement that Safari 5 is the world's fastest browser is a flat-out lie. A lie that is completely unnecessary.

Of course, nearly all tech companies play the speculation/inflation game, though not always intentionally. On Monday, Sprint claimed that first-day sales of its new HTC Evo 4G "marked the largest quantity of a single phone sold in one day ever for Sprint ... the total number of HTC Evo 4G devices sold on launch day was three times the number of Samsung Instinct and Palm Pre devices sold over their first three days on the market combined."

A day later Sprint started back pedaling, saying it had "inadvertently erred in the comparison." It turns out that Sprint sold as many Evos out of the gate as it did Pres and Instincts combined -- good sales numbers, but not quite rocket-to-the-stars sales numbers.

Honest mistake? Probably. But in this age of short attention spans, where stories flare up and die off on the Web in the matter of hours, it could well be a tactic. Get the headlines first, correct the mistakes later, hope nobody notices.

It's kind of like Hollywood, which uses massive marketing campaigns to lure people into the theaters, hoping to get them to drop $9.75 before they find out what a turkey that movie really is. (Hey, it worked for "Iron Man 2.")

I'm not saying the iPhone 4 or the Evo 4G are turkeys. But the more hype that surrounds these things, the more wary I become. First-day buyers beware; if that brand-new gizmo isn't all you thought it would be, you have no one to blame but yourselves.

Ever been duped by the hype surrounding a new product? E-mail me:

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Robert X. Cringely

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