Psst! Wanna See
Some Hot Pictures
-- Of New Cellphones?

Cybersleuths Give Buffs Peeks
At the Latest Gadgets;
Motorola Reaches Out
By CHRISTOPHER RHOADS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
December 14, 2004; Page A1

PHILADELPHIA -- Earlier this year Richard Brome unearthed some photos on the Internet that were perfect for his Web site.

Knowing that tens of thousands of people would share his excitement, the 26-year-old Mr. Brome digitally sharpened the grainy images and posted them. They created a sensation, with weeks of heated online chatter.

Mr. Brome had spotted shots -- buried deep in engineering minutiae on a government Web site -- of Motorola Inc.'s unreleased V710 cellphone, with software for a wireless earpiece, MP3 music player, camera and other novel features. The coup came a month before Motorola and Verizon Wireless planned to release the phone.

"There's an insatiable appetite for seeing new phones from every angle," explains Mr. Brome, who runs his Web site, called phonescoop.com1, from his modest apartment on a tree-lined street here. "Sometimes I feel like a technology pornographer," he says.


Mr. Brome and cybersleuths like him are at the center of a teeming world of online cellphone gossip that is taking on an influential role in the $100 billion industry. The sites have emerged over the past couple of years, riding the global boom in the gadgets as their position in popular culture grows. With names like engadget.com2 and mobiletracker.net3, the sites draw users capable of spending hours debating everything from a certain cellphone's battery life to the location of its volume button.

The sites used to draw protests and legal threats from companies unhappy at seeing their secret product plans publicly aired. Now, cellphone makers are starting to court them, as their popularity surges to several hundred thousand users a month for some sites.

Two years ago when Michael Oryl started his Web site, called mobileburn.com4, no one returned his calls seeking cellphones to review, he says. The 36-year-old gadget devotee runs his site from a cluttered room in his home in Phoenixville, Pa.

Now, he regularly receives new handsets to test without requesting them. Motorola is even considering periodically bringing Messrs. Oryl and Brome and a select few online cellphone buffs inside the company's handset headquarters in Libertyville, Ill., to examine prototypes and suggest changes before final models are built.

"Motorola is constantly looking at ways to work with these tech enthusiasts and considers them to be a valuable resource," a Motorola spokeswoman says.

Cellphones are just one industry that has started wooing the Web sites that create buzz for new products. David Poland has become a Hollywood player thanks in part to his site, moviecitynews.com5. Jason Dunn, who started a site devoted to palm-sized personal computers several years ago from his Calgary home, regularly gets invited to Microsoft Corp.'s campus in Redmond, Wash.

The rise of cellphone gossip sites comes as the industry's marketing escalates to the glitzy level usually reserved for new movies or cars. Last month, Motorola rolled out a super-thin, high-end cellphone, called the V3 RAZR, in a global launch featuring appearances in a music video from recording artist Gwen Stefani and its own television commercial. The RAZR costs $499 with a two-year contract from Cingular.


The RAZR "is expensive, but I am the kind of person who wants people to notice and say something about my phone," confessed a person with the screen-name CingularTechGurl1 on phonescoop.com, just days before the RAZR launch. "I am going to handle mine like royalty when I get it."

A user named Phoneking13 empathized, "I remember feeling that way when I first got my Nokia 6800."

Suzanne Cross, Sony Ericsson's product marketing manager for North America, says she spends 15 minutes each morning over coffee scanning the sites for industry scuttlebutt. "These are the most frequented sites for early adopters and those who must have the latest and greatest cellphone -- it's like a captive focus group."

For their part, the sites are working harder on buffing their relations with the industry. Last May, a cellphone snoop dug up an electronic slide presentation of Sony Ericsson's handset strategy -- including images of handsets coming out later in the year -- and e-mailed it to Mr. Oryl. It was the sort of inside information that phone-heads and rivals crave.

But instead of splashing it on his Web site, he posted a few photos without identifying their source, and then alerted Sony Ericsson to the problem. Sony Ericsson recently invited him for a personal visit to its laboratories in North Carolina. "We've gone from renegades to trying to have more mature relationships," says Mr. Oryl.

Still, the key for those who run the sites is to get their hands on a cellphone -- or at least photos of it -- as early as possible. That attracts online visitors, and generates more advertising.

Jonathan Gales says he pulls down more than $4,500 a month from advertising on his site, called mobiletracker.net. Not bad for a 19-year-old who still lives at home with his parents in Tampa, Fla.

Howard Chui, who manages a site he named after himself from his Toronto apartment, says he sampled Motorola's RAZR months before it hit stores in the U.S. last month. His source: a friend swapped an Apple laptop with someone who got a RAZR at a fashion show in Milan.

"It has a lot of wow factor, but feature-wise it doesn't do much more than the others -- and its bottom is kind of chubby," says the 27-year-old Mr. Chui, referring to the slim phone.

Despite attempts to court the likes of Mr. Chui, the cellphone makers are also trying to clamp down on security. Leaks can give competitors crucial time to respond to a hit phone with a similar version.

After a year of pressure from cellphone companies, the Federal Communications Commission in June agreed to extend the confidentiality period on its Web site following approval of new handsets.

That change has made things more difficult for phonescoop.com's Mr. Brome, who routinely mines the FCC site for leaks. He came across this "untapped treasure chest" of cellphone information a few years ago when he was working on a cellphone project for a Web development company, he says.

When he found out about Motorola's V710 on the FCC site last winter, his followers were euphoric, since it was Verizon Wireless's first cellphone with a wireless earpiece, among other new features. "IT HAS FINALLY COME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!," gushed chicubsfan.

The initial fervor over the V710 then cooled. Users on his site were dismayed with the quality of the phone's camera. Others became annoyed that some of the phone's software functions were disabled. One user, named daveyp225, described, with pictures, how he took apart his V710 with a flathead screwdriver and a hairdryer, to determine why the camera was crooked.

Earlier this fall, Motorola recalled the V710 from retailers and fixed the angle of the camera. Daveyp225 wrote, "Maybe they thought we wouldn't notice or something?"

Write to Christopher Rhoads at christopher.rhoads@wsj.com6