Microsoft Gives Free Laptops to Bloggers

One of the little publicized facts of the technology industry is that manufacturers and distributors routinely send out review hardware to press outlets, influential media figures, and others as a way to get publicity and raise awareness of their products. Many of these exchanges are on the up-and-up: journalists have to sign review agreements to return the units in a certain amount of time, and sometimes even provide credit information in the event the item is damaged or stolen. However, some manufacturers—particularly of low-cost or commodity items—don’t care if the review units are returned, and sometimes items just arrive unsolicited: marketing and PR people are taking the chance that jut putting a product in proximity to a publisher or reviewer will make good things happen.

As common as these practices are, they create a bit of conundrum for journalists, since keeping or selling the items is effectively accepting a bribe and raises interesting ethical and tax issues.

This week, Microsoft has been rather publicly “outed” for sending full-loaded Acer Ferrari notebook computers pre-loaded with Windows Vista Ultimate and Office 2007 to selected high-profile bloggers. Microsoft contacted the bloggers directly and offered the “review units” with no strings attached, saying bloggers could write about them (or not), return the systems (or not), or give away the notebooks on their sites. Of course, since Vista is not yet available to consumers and a high-end laptop with everything pre-installed is a tempting offer, many of the bloggers jumped.

Some critics have argued Microsoft’s practice is unethical; ethics aside, it certainly isn’t uncommon in the technology industry, and is no doubt viewed by many as a savvy public relations move. A more pressing concern might be when reviewers fail to disclose how they receive review units, the terms attached to them, and any other conflicts of interest associated with their work. At least most of the bloggers Microsoft contacted have been up-front (even giddy) about their newfound boons; several say they plan to return the units to Microsoft.

Microsoft and PR firm Edelman have refused to say how many laptops were given to bloggers, or the units’ value. Published reports have the number of systems between 80 and 100, with street prices ranging frm $2,000 to $2,4000 apiece.

(As a rule, I rarely review hardware or software, but, for the record, any review items I receive are either returned to the manufacturer or, with permission, donated to a charity or user group, and I disclose any relationship with the manufacturer or developer in the text of the review.)