The camera phone has struck again, and this time it put a serious wrinkle in the public-relations strategy Microsoft had appeared to craft...

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The camera phone has struck again, and this time it put a serious wrinkle in the public-relations strategy Microsoft had appeared to craft.

The company’s plans to unveil its next-generation Xbox console in a splashy MTV special Thursday were crimped over the weekend as leaked photos of the machine showed up online.

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According to Web site Engadget, someone who attended a pre-launch party last week for the video-game machine, called Xbox 360, had a camera phone handy. And when you mix camera phones with a supposedly hush-hush, celebrity-heavy Xbox event in Los Angeles, you’ll get more snapping than at a doo-wop concert.

The photos that subsequently appeared on Engadget’s site ( show a console that is white, sleek and can stand vertically — completely different from the hulking machine that was Microsoft’s first foray into the video-game market.

Microsoft did not deny the photos’ authenticity yesterday. The company released a statement, however, characterizing the online leaks as “buzz and speculation.” It still plans the MTV unveiling at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, and in the next week is expected to announce new details about the console.

Online reaction to the machine on Web sites and forums was, predictably, all over the map. Some called it the ugliest piece of hardware they had ever seen, while others said it was sexy and contemporary.

Though the timing wasn’t exactly to Microsoft’s liking, the leaked photos made the Xbox 360 the talk of the video-game world yesterday. They also kicked off a week of what Microsoft hopes will be swelling momentum for its machine, capped by the company’s media briefing on Monday at the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles.

Microsoft is planning to start selling the Xbox 360 in November, and will likely beat rivals Sony and Nintendo to market with a next-generation console. Microsoft hopes the earlier launch will help it avoid the fate it suffered in the current generation of video gaming, in which Sony debuted first and dominated the field.

Sony has shipped 87.5 million units of its PlayStation 2 consoles worldwide, compared with 19.9 million Xbox consoles and 18 million Nintendo GameCube systems.

Microsoft expects to be a major threat to Sony this time around, and has moved to avoid the problems it faced with its current-generation Xbox machine.

The look of the Xbox 360 may help allay the concerns the Xbox stirred in Japan, where gamers said the console was too big and bulky. To further gain acceptance in Japan, Microsoft has hired the Japanese creator of the popular Final Fantasy franchise to design two games exclusively for the Xbox 360.

Microsoft also expects its console to usher in the era of high-

definition video gaming, and has partnered with Samsung Electronics to emphasize the sophisticated visual quality of the Xbox 360.

The company has spent years carefully crafting a strategy to further establish the Xbox. One arm of that strategy is to become a more credible competitive threat to Sony; the other is to gain more of a presence in home entertainment systems, to move from the basement to the living room.

Launching this year is key for Microsoft, analysts said, although there is a danger in debuting too early.

“If you get a system out there too early before the market’s ready, you always have the chance that your competitors will leapfrog you,” said David Cole, an analyst with San Diego-based DFC Intelligence. On the other hand, debuting first will give game developers a chance to get used to the new system and create games for it, he added.

Sony is expected to unveil its PlayStation 3 console at E3 and begin selling the system next year. Nintendo’s E3 plans are unclear, but the company has said it has a next-generation console, called Revolution, in the works.

So far, the companies have said little to persuade gamers to hold off on buying an Xbox 360, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

“I could really see it being the iPod of this holiday season,” he said. “This is the $300 gadget that everybody’s got to have.”

Microsoft hasn’t disclosed the price of the Xbox 360, but analysts widely consider it to be in the $300 range. There could be two versions of the machine as well: a lower-priced one with basic features and a premium one with all the bells and whistles.

The Xbox 360’s success will partly depend on how Sony responds, said Schelley Olhava, an analyst with technology research firm IDC.

Microsoft will have six months to a year to sell consoles and can say that the Xbox 360 leads the market, she added. The company will probably easily sell the first 1 million or 1.5 million Xbox 360 consoles, she added.

Beyond that, she said, “it’s harder to sell into that broader base of gamers.”

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or