Apple is an innovator: a creative company with a penchant to produce hardware and software that manages to stay several steps ahead of the competition. Because of the nature of Apple’s output, the Internet is constantly rife with rumour and speculation about what’s coming next, especially when a Macworld Expo is imminent, when the Mac faithful works itself into a frenzy, trying to figure out what’s going to be unveiled just after Steve Jobs utters the infamous line: "One more thing."
This phenomenon is largely unique to the Mac, as are the rumour sites that have appeared in recent years to document every rumour and tidbit of information that might enable us to sneak a peek into the future of all things Apple.
"It's like Christmas: people can't resist peeking under the wrappers," explains Leander Kahney, senior reporter with Wired News, and author of Mac culture book, 'Cult of Mac'. "As for the others: people don’t buy Dell because they're excited about the products - it's all about price. Apple is about design, aesthetics, and quality - it's about coming up with stuff that is strikingly new."
"And who wouldn’t want to write about a company that has changed - and continues to change - the world, as Apple has?" asks Kasper Jade, editor-in-chief of Mac rumour website, AppleInsider.com. The answer, presumably, would be anyone likely to be sued for saying too much, which is what has happened to Think Secret publisher, Nick dePlume, who, in January 2005, became the latest target of Apple's legal team, which was fuming regarding Think Secret's revelations two weeks prior to the Expo about Mac mini and iPod shuffle. The argument, according to Apple and like-minded thinkers, is that, far from supporting Apple, rumour sites are detrimental to the company, reducing sales, and causing problems for Apple’s share price.
Kasper Jade’s not so sure. He first started AppleInsder.com in the 1990s, due to his love of everything about the Mac. "This soon spilled over to the Web, but I didn’t want to create a rehashed news site - I wanted to offer something other sites didn't: a glimpse of the future."
Kasper reminds us that, in those days, Apple wasn’t riding high on the crest of iPod sales: "Back then, Apple was falling to pieces: its market share was tumbling, and the mainstream press predicted its demise on a daily basis." Sites like AppleInsider.com offered hope to Apple’s most enthusiastic and devoted customers, he argues, providing updates on 'behind the scenes' work, and reassuring everyone that Mac development continued. "We kept the faith, stirring up excitement about even the smallest of products."
Leander Kahney suggests that this hasn’t changed, even if Apple has: "Rumour sites remain beneficial to Apple: they build excitement about the Expos and the company." Leander says that Mac users trade in rumours because they care, not to be malicious, and claims that the level of interest in the Macworld Expo this year - higher than any other - was largely stoked by the rumour sites.
Kasper agrees: "Do you think the media would have kept such a close eye on Macworld if there was not a peep from the underground of what may emerge?" It's a good point, and one he thinks Apple should bear in mind, rather than embarking on its crusade to control the media: "Apple wants what it wants, when it wants it. Apple is happy for rumour sites to stir up excitement, but, ultimately, it wants them to fail when it comes to the accuracy of reports on unannounced products."
But surely Apple's reasoning for clamping down on rumour sites is more than just the company's way of getting back at people for ruining Steve’s big surprises? Surely there's a negative side to rumour sites? For instance, it's increasingly common for the mainstream press to report on forthcoming Apple products, using information garnered solely from rumour sites. In many cases, such rumours are inaccurate, meaning Apple’s share price plummets as Jobs says what's really going on.
"Sure, sometimes expectations get pumped way too high - such as the rumours of a $100 hard-drive-based iPod in 2003 - and the subsequent lacklustre keynote can be a bit of a downer," says Leander. "However, that's got less to do with rampant rumours and more to do with a lack of basic common sense: people should never believe what they read, especially on the Internet!"
The sloppiest and most damaging reporting, argues Leander, is usually down to the larger news organisations: "The exalted Times of London reported the $500 Mac as fact, based on ‘published reports’. These reports were highly speculative Internet rumours, but The Times made no mention of that. The New York Times has also traded in rumours, reporting in the last couple of years that Apple is working on a PDA, iPhone, and home media server."
Leander notes, however, that larger news organisations rarely become the subject of Apple's wrath, because they have money and lawyers.
Leander also dismisses the implication that Apple's share price is directly affected by rumour sites promising more than the company delivers.
"Pundits were disappointed by iPod mini not because of rumours that it would be $100, but because it was only $50 cheaper than the 20GB iPod, which had four times the capacity. Also, the disappointment wasn't shared by customers: iPod mini was a smash hit!"
On the subject of shares, Leander argues that Apple's share price always falls after an Expo:"Wall Street buys on the rumour, and sells on the news - this is the same with all companies and is a pattern as old as the stock exchange itself".
In fact, the main problem, suggests Leander, is Apple itself. "Apple is the most arrogant, uncommunicative company I’ve ever dealt with, but the press covers it anyway, because it's sexy and exciting. Sure, it's in Apple's interests to keep some products under wraps, but the company's not going to crash and burn because Think Secret published some specs two weeks ahead of time."
Kasper also detects a touch of arrogance in today's Apple, noting that its hardliner stance has come about at the same time as its new-found popularity: "Apple never threatened us when we first started AppleInsider.com, but then again, Apple wasn't flying high with iPod back then." He suggests that Apple needed any publicly it could get in the 1990s - including that generated by the rumour sites; and one could surmise that now the company has the press hanging on its every word, the importance of rumour sites to Apple is negligible, and therefore they can be discarded, or, if possible, removed entirely. Although Kasper also concedes that Apple should always try to protect its secrets, he says that when they do get out, "I don’t think the company has the right to go around suing and intimidating anyone but their own employees and contractors."
Words of warning
Such words are perhaps scant consolation for Nick dePlume, publisher of Think Secret, Mac advocate, and the most recent target of Apple’s legal team.
Nick strongly believes that rumour sites benefit Apple, generating interest in the company's products, and he claims in his efforts to report news to the public, he uses the same, legal newsgathering techniques that any other reporter uses. He’s confident that Think Secret is protected by American law, which states that journalists cannot be held liable for publishing information that they lawfully obtained, regardless of how the source may have obtained the information. Apple is pressing ahead regardless.
"In my opinion, this isn't justifiable," says Leander. "Before the Expo, the $500 Mac rumour seemed unlikely, but the lawsuit validated the rumour. Apple cynically used the lawsuit to generate press - its timing betrays the company's motives."
Leander backs Nick, saying he's a good reporter who knows his stuff and knows how to dig up great information. "He’s not trading in company secrets - it's not industrial espionage! He's merely releasing information before Apple wants it released. He’s not part of a tightly controlled PR operation, and that pisses Apple off."
Kasper agrees: "Apple wants control. The lawsuit could be seen as a desperate attempt to control the media. Over the years, AppleInsider.com has received its share of ‘cease and desist’ orders, and it’s worth noting that while some may have contained legitimate claims, a good majority of them have been nonsense - Apple issues such orders for anything it doesn’t want on the Web, regardless of whether it actually violates the company’s rights."
Some are suggesting that the real reason Apple is suing Think Secret is to plug the leak; and many claim the company is justified in doing so, because rumour sites provide confidential information that enables competitors to get to market before Apple.
"The thing is, Think Secret has rarely published an accurate piece on a future Apple product more than two weeks in advance of Apple's official announcement," says Kasper. "Can any competitor build and bring to market a similar product within this time-frame? I doubt it."
So, time for some speculation of our own: how will this lawsuit impact on the mainstream press and the rumour sites with regards to reporting about Apple? And how will it affect Apple itself? Leander seems to think the mainstream press is safe, because it has the funds and ability to defend itself: "Apple doesn’t waste time and money there - it only bullies those publications small enough to roll over. But Apple won't stop rumour sites entirely - this is the Internet, the 'wild west' of information; Think Secret may get hurt, but rumour sites are never going away."
Kasper's not quite so sure: "If it turns out rumour sites cannot operate as they do today, the volume of Apple coverage in mainstream media will fall. Furthermore, Apple may turn friends into foes, like in the reseller channel where the companies that fought and supported Apple for years were rewarded by being forced out of business by Apple's own retail stores."
Apple doesn’t need resellers anymore, suggests Kasper, just like it no longer needs rumour sites: "Apple survived and is now healthy again, so screw everyone that helped keep the company afloat over the last two decades," he said.