Of course we all love gossip. Will Brad and Jen get together again, or is Angelina in the picture for good? Which famous show business couple is headed for divorce next? Is that actor who was arrested for DUI going to spend a few months in rehab? The supermarket tabloids used to be the only purveyors of this stuff, but it’s now spread throughout the mainstream press.
With the eyes of the world on Apple Computer, it’s no wonder that the legal skirmishing with Mac rumor sites has dominated the technology pages in recent weeks. Is it a freedom of the press issue, or just some folks breaking the law by stealing trade secrets? Or a combination of both?
I expect a lot of you don’t remember MacWeek. Although oriented towards business users, it was a must-read for any dedicated Mac user. Its most popular feature, “Mac the Knife,” contained rumors, speculation and general chit-chat about possible future Apple products.
During the dark days at Apple, and with declining ad revenue, MacWeek bit the dust, but its legacy lives on, at least so far as rumors are concerned, in several popular Web sites. Now in those days, I always believed that Apple executives would sometimes feed the rumor mills strictly to test out product ideas, although you could never know for sure. Otherwise, I expect the sources then were of the same variety as they are now, people who knew the inside details about a new product and wanted their 15 minutes of fame, even if the names couldn’t be revealed.
The death of “Mac the Knife” created a vacuum filled by Apple Insider, PowerPage, Think Secret and a few others. Now maybe they didn’t enjoy the same credibility that MacWeek achieved, but, as you know, the quality of their work improved greatly over the years. Of late, some of the rumors have been dead on, or close enough to accurately reflect the basics of a new iPod, new Mac or new software release.
Over the years, Apple merely tolerated the ongoing gossip. I rather suspect some folks in the company were amused by the interest in what they were up to. Consider how things are on that other computing platform. I mean how many sites devote themselves to the goings on at Dell or Gateway? I’m not holding my breath.
However, when Steve Jobs became the ship’s captain, things changed drastically. The information pipelines were restricted. Where Mac publications were given advanced looks at new products in order to get the information in print when those products shipped, now they had to get in line with the rest of the world and wait until the official public announcement.
Rumor sites that dared to print actual photos of a new product got letters from Apple’s legal team demanding removal of those photos. Since these sites are small operations, run part time by one or two people; teenagers in some cases, they didn’t have the deep pockets to defend themselves, so they complied.
The court decision last week that gives Apple the right to get information from a Mac rumor site’s email provider about the source of new product leaks could, perhaps, signal the potential death of such information resources. Or at least the ones that deliver accurate information. Now I don’t pretend to know how things will ultimately turn out. There are appeals, and appeals of those appeals to consider. And I suppose it’s always possible for one or more of those sources to turn themselves in to get the online publications who protected them off the hook. Of course, I don’t think that’s likely right now, but in the end, they’d have to consider the havoc they’ve caused and whether it was all worth it.
Whatever happens, the decision will definitely set the boundaries of how far rumor sites can go before triggering legal action. If the courts paint a broad brush on what constitutes a trade secret, those sites will most likely have to fold up their tents and move on.
Of course, we’ll still speculate on future Apple products, but without any solid information to feed that speculation, it’s a pastime that’ll lose its charm. We’ll have to move on to some other topic, I suppose, but don’t the wrong idea. I do not for a moment approve of someone violating a confidentiality agreement and revealing information about a new product or service to the press, with just one exception. And that is whether that information might affect the health and welfare of the populace.
But in the end, an online world without Mac rumor sites just won’t be as much fun.
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