Verizon Cranks Up Droid Hype for Friday Launch

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Verizon Wireless will open many of its 2,000 retail stores early on Friday for first day sales of the Droid smartphone, adding to the marketing hype already begun for the Android 2.0 device from Motorola Inc.

Some stores will open at 7 a.m. and others at 8 a.m. A list of stores is available on Verizon's Web site although the site doesn't say which will open earlier and advises calling the store in advance to be sure. The QWERTY keyboard slider device sells for $200 after a rebate and a new two-year contract.

Also, with Droid sales, Verizon is coordinating an unusual Times Square event in New York City this month to allow nearby voice callers to control two large digital billboards there, with some of their voice search results for nearby restaurants and attractions displayed on Google Maps on those billboards.

Google Inc., Motorola and the Verizon, the nation's largest wireless carrier, started the Droid campaign with an unusual TV ad that belittled missing features, such as a physical keyboard and multitasking, in its chief rival, the iPhone.

It's fair, then, to wonder whether first-day-of-sale hoopla and other creative (and expensive) advertising are becoming what's required to do well in the competitive smartphone world. Or maybe this kind of campaign is what's required by carriers and manufacturers who dare to attempt to catch up with the iconic Apple iPhone, which has been on the market for more than two years and is in its third version.

"No, you don't have to conduct this kind of Droid campaign to sell a new smartphone," said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at market research firm IDC today. "Look at BlackBerry, which has had some success for its devices without all the hype. But I'd say if you want to plant a stake in the ground, you do this kind of [Droid] campaign."

In a sense, Motorola has the most at stake with the Droid launch, since it has pinned so much of its smartphone future on the Android platform and a variety of new devices in coming months.

"For Motorola, this is one of the ways they get back in the game," Llamas said.

It's uncertain whether the early TV ads and other hype will generate interest and crowds on Friday, or whether the Android operating system, with its open source allure might have drawn some crowds anyway.

Llamas said he expects some crowds for sales of the Droid on Friday. "The reaction has been very positive already," he said. "It's interesting to see how much hype they are generating. When they open the doors, I would bet you'll see lines from buyers and also people who are curious and close to the end of a contract and want a demonstration."

While early hours and other gimmicks might steal a little from the slick methods of Apple Inc.'s marketers, Llamas said there's nothing wrong with "taking a page out of the playbook of somebody who's been successful."

Apple has attracted hundreds, and even thousands of customers to its stores for launches of its three iPhones, although successive versions have resulted in fewer numbers.

It might help that Apple has fewer stores than Verizon, but the iPhone is also on sale at AT&T stores, which are also plentiful. Still, even AT&T hasn't attracted the first-day crowds of Apple stores, where customers have said they feel they get more personal attention.

Verizon spokeman Tom Pica said he couldn't predict how big Verizon's crowds will be on Friday, but noted that when the BlackBerry Storm went on sale Nov. 21, 2008, there were lines in advance of the opening. One man stood overnight at the Toledo, Ohio, store to get the original Storm, with its touchscreen display.

"We're prepared for crowds for Droid," Pica said in a telephone interview. "The buzz with Droid has been bigger than the first Storm."

Pica said the "Droid Does Times Square" digital billboard event in Times Square will allow a passerby to call from any phone to a toll-free number, asking through voice commands for a nearby location, such as the nearest pizza shops. The results of that search will be displayed on Google Maps on the large Nasdaq and Reuters signs in Times Square several times a day for most of November with advertising for the Droid included.

Llamas said the marketing for smartphones, including Droid, might almost seem "strange" but could be just the kind of fun that consumers respond to in a recessionary time.

"Smartphone releases aren't just releases anymore," Llamas said. "They have become full-fledged events and I'd say a pretty good thing to have. It's kind of fun in a recession to have that kind of hype. It's like getting ready for a new Star Wars movie."

This story, "Verizon Cranks Up Droid Hype for Friday Launch" was originally published by Computerworld.

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