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How Google subverted the world’s largest mobile trade show with 124 tiny Android Pins

“Where did you get that one?” a middle-aged woman dressed in a business suit exclaimed, hunching over a crowded table at one of the largest gadget trade shows in the world. I couldn’t see what she was pointing at, thanks to the melee around her. Dozens of people flanked us, all snapping pictures with their phones, talking excitedly about whatever amazing bit of tech was on the table.

But this wasn’t the Galaxy S6 Edge, the new LG Watch Urbane, a glimpse of an Apple product, or gadget at all … it was a small lapel pin. Or more precisely, 124 different lapel pins shaped like Android mascots. Each one wore a different outfit — they were dressed like people all over the world, from Eskimos to fishing-boat captains.

If MWC lasted for longer than a week, these pins had the potential to oust the Euro as the most widely accepted currency in Barcelona.

Forget technology. These pins were the hottest, most talked about item at Mobile World Congress this year. Nothing else filled conversations for so long, brought people together so fervently, or attracted as much attention as these tiny, essentially inconsequential adornments. They really should have had their own launch party on the Sunday just before the show opened. It would have been better attended than even Samsung’s Galaxy S6 event.

These Android pins were made and distributed by Google as part of an elaborate PR stunt that turned into a collector’s dream, and a show-wide phenomenon. Think of collectible phenomenons like Pokemon, Beanie Babies, or Pogs, then compress the time it took for them to grab everyone’s attention, create a community, and become the collectible of the moment into a mere four days. Oh, and remember that this happened at technology trade show, not in the schoolyard, and the pins were eagerly gathered by adults, not 11-year olds.

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For a few days, the entire tech world in Barcelona went mad in the most gleeful, fabulous way.

Pin fever with only one prescription

Here’s how it went down: Google gave most of its high-profile tech partners — companies like Samsung, ZTE, and LG — two-foot-tall Android statues to display at their booths. These statues, which were 3D printed and rumored to cost $10,000 apiece, became beacons for anyone wanting to get a pin. Every day, each company got a box of its own special pins, which changed daily, and the designs never repeated.

Google distributed a total of more than 200,000 Android mascot pins over the duration of the show. To collect all 124 different varieties, you had to visit each booth, each day — and find other secret pins. People — ostensibly professionals who were here for business purposes — really did put in the effort, too. By the last day, all 200,000 pins were snapped up. For some perspective, MWC usually has an attendance of around 100,000 people.

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Jeffrey Van Camp/Digital Trends

Many people didn’t really hear about the pins until about halfway through the show, myself included. Early collectors suddenly found they owned a rapidly appreciating commodity, and pin swapping flourished between enthusiasts.

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If MWC lasted for longer than a week, these pins had the potential to oust the Euro as the most widely accepted currency in Barcelona. It became normal to see gaggles of people digging through handfuls of pins, looking to fill gaps in their collections. The effect transformed rooms full of adults from all over the world into children again. Fellow Android pin devotees were easy to spot by the pins adorning their official MWC lanyards. Bandoliers of glorified thumbtacks became a status symbol.

That’s how I spotted Gisela. I’d picked up a pin or two after meetings, and had started to notice people proudly wearing their hoard. She was deep in conversation with Googler Andy Zmolek, who broke with tradition and wore his pins on the lapels of his jacket. A bag full of pins sat on the desk in front of them. Deals were being made.

After starting on the third day, Gisela was a latecomer to the pin-collecting craze, and she was making up for lost time. It was also her lunch break, which was the only time she had to go off and search for the latest additions. Guided by a special “treasure map” with all the locations of pins, she made best use of her limited time.

“I like them because they’re fun, and I get to meet lots of new people,” she explained. I got the impression Gisela was always pretty happy, but collecting the pins was a truly gleeful experience for her.

Android pin-worshiping temples pop up

People like Gisela had fun pin collecting, but some attendees took it far more seriously. In the darker recesses of Mobile World Congress, acquiring Android pins became an all-consuming passion. Google set up buildings shaped like massive Android heads outside the main halls, which quickly became temples for the pin faithful. Inside, they could worship the Android gods in front of columns lined with every available pin, which were sealed away from their mortal grasp.

In the darker recesses of Mobile World Congress, acquiring Android pins became an all-consuming passion.

By the time the final day came, I drank the Kool-Aid and joined the cult. In fact, all four of us on the DT team fell victim to the craze. We began to organize and mobilize to obtain the pins we so desperately needed. I began to get messages from Simon, Malarie, and Jeff with reports of frantic pin swapping scenes, and pictures of collectors they encountered. We all began amassing pins for ourselves. While I was doing “research” outside one of the temples on the final day, I witnessed the most bizarre, wonderful thing.

“He’s got them all!” someone yelled with a tone that conveyed both excitement and jealousy.

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It was true! A man named Zhen had collected all 124 pins, and laid them out on a table for all to see and lust over. As I watched, among the crowd, the woman next to me loudly asked where he found a particular pin. Presumably, she had spent the last few days in meetings, making deals, or like me, reporting on the latest hardware, but at that moment, all she cared about was tracking down this particular Android lapel pin. I never caught up with her, but it may have been the last one she needed. She vanished, returning to the hunt, before I could even ask which rare pin she needed.

Zhen started assembling his amazing collection on day two of MWC, and relied on the help of friends and colleagues to help reach his goal. He describes himself as a Android fanatic. I asked him what he would do with the pins when he returned home. “Frame them!” he said proudly. People were still congratulating him when he was called back to his booth (he was a tech-support specialist for the GSMA) to do some actual work.

It was 10:30 a.m. on the final day, and rumors of two other complete pin collections circulated the Halls.

The fabled IBM pin

Putting together all 124 pins was an immense task, given the short time frame and huge size of MWC, plus the fact everyone was really there for business. And just like all the best collectibles, there were some pins that were even harder to obtain than others. For example, there was a single Google employee (a Googler) wandering the Halls with a rare prize. If you found him and were wearing all your pins for the world to see, he would hand you a pin of a simple Android carrying a lollipop. But, I also heard tantalizing tales of a rare, missing Android pin: The IBM pin.

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Without any Android promotional materials at IBM’s booth, few people knew what the IBM pin looked like, and even fewer had seen one in person. When I discussed the fabled pin with one collector, an agitated man (a full-grown man in a suit and tie, mind you) quickly butted in from behind us. “Where can I get it?” he asked with a frantic tone. “Go to the IBM booth,” I offered as a sensible suggestion. “No, IBM doesn’t have it!” he desperately exclaimed.

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Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

What had happened to the IBM pin? No one knows for sure, but the little pin may have become a casualty in a rather hot political situation. IBM has an exclusive deal in place with Apple to provide business tools and apps. Google announced Android For Work at MWC, and it’s rumored Apple didn’t take too kindly to IBM proudly displaying an Android statue and its promo pins, and preferred the company to remain faithful and on-brand, hence the sudden disappearance.

MWC: The happiest place on Earth?

Because of the Android pins, I spoke to more happy people at MWC this year than any show before it. Josh, a collector I met outside one of the temples, epitomized what the pin movement was all about. “I’m just having fun with it,” he told me, as he gave his spare pins out to anyone who asked. Then there was Genju, who smiled continuously as she showed me her favorite out of her own treasure trove of cute, colorful pins. The Android pins, or more specifically the community that quickly started up around them, had turned an often solemn event into something vibrant, friendly, and more than a bit crazy.

By 2 p.m. on the final day, the pins had disappeared. It was all over. All had gone the same way as the now lost IBM pin. I was elated that I’d seen something quite special, but saddened that I don’t think it could ever be repeated in the same way. The jaw-dropping response to the pins could make them a staple of many future tech shows, and they may not all come from Google.

Dave Herman, VP of Cyanogen’s product development team, wondered aloud about the possibility, even as he teased a colleague over her lust for a particular pin.

“Who knows,” he said, “Maybe we’ll do pins next year.”