Apple is the company that routinely suppresses news of unreleased products with Bletchley Park-style zeal; that makes employees sign a non-disclosure agreement upon joining, rewarding loose-lipped staff with instant dismissal; and that sues rumour sites with gay abandon when they stray too close to the truth.

So what on earth was
Time magazine doing with a five-page cover feature that laid bare Apple's Macworld Expo releases a day before Steve Jobs' keynote? The spread contained official photos of Jobs and Apple's chief designer Jonathan Ive posing with the new iMac, along with details of the machine and its new core application, iPhoto.

Surely Jobs must have blown a gasket? Surely backstage before his keynote ectoplasm was issuing from his mouth as he worked himself into an unholy rage over Time magazine stealing his beloved keynote thunder?

Lots of Time But no. Throughout the keynote, he was all smiles. Not only that, but a beaming Jobs even told his audience that free copies of the offending issue of Time were piled outside, waiting for them!

Can this be the same man who – as some Apple watchers believe – reacted to ATI leaking details of his Macworld Expo New York 2000 keynote by deciding to bundle future Macs mainly with NVidia cards?

Same man. Different time. Instead of beating the rumour sites it seems Apple has decided to join them, at least for the present. The first sign that Apple had profoundly changed its Expo run-in approach was provided by its US home page last week, which ran with provocative banner-style Expo teasers. Last Monday the site boasted: "This one is big. Even by our standards." On Tuesday it gave us: "Count the days. Count the minutes. Count on being blown away." And on Wednesday, it screamed: "Beyond the rumor sites. Way beyond.".

People were wrong-footed, and with good reason, because for years, we've suffered the groan-inducing "Apple refuses to comment on unreleased products" – a phrase chanted like a sacred mantra by the company's put-upon mouthpieces, especially as Macworld Expo looms.

Seismic shift It's possible that this seismic shift in Apple's product-announcement strategy can be explained by two factors: Microsoft, and Macworld 2001 Expo New York. First, Microsoft.

In mid-December, Apple announced it was bringing Jobs' keynote forward by a day to January 7. Speculation at the time suggested this was because Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates was, on the Tuesday January 8, delivering the keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Now that Gates has given his keynote, things are even clearer. The Microsoft boss unveiled further details of his vision of turning the PC into the digital-entertainment centre for the home. He presented two new technologies, Mira and Freestyle, both of which are designed to convert the PC into a jukebox for video, music and pictures. A sort of "digital hub", if you will.

Did Apple get wind of these announcements and give Time permission to "leak" its cover story in order to spike Bill's digital guns good and proper? Stranger things have happened.

Then there's Jobs' New York 2001 Macworld Expo 'low-keynote', in which he offered a succession of minor upgrades when what people expected was flat-panel iMacs. That Expo was slammed by many as being a damp squib, an accusation that stung Apple and Jobs. So much so, it seems, that the company has veered violently in the opposite direction, hyping its Expo products through the stratosphere and beyond the rumor sites. Way beyond.

Jobs the pragmatist Steve Jobs is nothing if not a pragmatist, and Apple's unexpected Expo hype – and maybe the leak – happened because that's what suited the company's purposes at the time.

Since his return to Apple, the rumour sites and "Apple sources" must have made Jobs feel like a man eating a jam sandwich next to a wasp's nest. Out-hyping the enemy may have been payback. He smoked them out, if only for a while.

This was no mean feat, because the rumour merchants pulled out all the stops in this Expo run-up. One rumour in particular generated massive interest globally: the iWalk, an Apple-branded Palm-style PDA hyped by Spymac. The site went as far as posting an authentic-looking
QuickTime movie of this new "product". Only after close inspection by many sets of keenly trained eyes did the Macworld UK office feel able to declare it a hoax.

Whipping up such a frenzy of expectation was impressive on another front: we all knew that Apple would introduce flat-panel iMacs, especially after the company announced it was scrapping stand-alone CRT monitors from its product line-up. The rumour sites themselves treated this more as fact than rumour, speculating merely on what type of flat-panel iMac Apple would deliver.

Apple delivered a product that not only allowed it to go beyond the rumour sites, but one that allowed it – if only for a few glorious days – to go beyond itself.

Visit our Expo round-up pages and
picture gallery
from the show.