Apple and the Press Revisited

April 29th, 2006

One thing is certain and that is that Apple maintains tight-fisted control over information about the company. When it comes to new products, the entire marketing process from press release, to contacts with media and ads, is carefully orchestrated. And the results have usually been highly successful. Product announcements that would be routine at other companies garner big headlines in major online and print publications around the world.

In this environment, members of the press are treated equally, but some are treated more equally than others. This means that a precious few favored reporters, generally from such publications as The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, will get stories about new products and review samples ahead of the rest of the pack. It’s not so much a case of discrimination, but wanting to get the maximum impact as the marketing machine spins into action.

Of course, Apple doesn’t always control when those publications appear in print with their news about the product in question. When the so-called flower pot iPod appeared, for example, its release had to be moved up one day to coincide with Time’s Monday publishing schedule. This may not be such a big issue, except for the fact that the usual Tuesday morning keynote at a certain Macworld Expo had to be rescheduled to Monday. I imagine that hotel and plane schedules were seriously disrupted as a result, but remember this is Steve Jobs and Apple.

In such a heavily-controlled environment, Apple grudgingly tolerates reports that speculate about its new products. In fact, when Steve Jobs demonstrated the GarageBand component of iLife ’06 in otherwise somewhat tepid performance during the Macworld Expo keynote in January, he created his own Podcast containing some “silly” Apple rumors. He was making fun of something that often vexes the company and has brought out the legal eagles on a number of occasions.

Several Mac sites have been honored with cease and desist letters from Apple’s legal department when they publish the wrong photos or other information that discloses information that’s too close to the truth about a new product. As part of a lawsuit against unknown defendants bearing the collective name of “John Doe,” they even subpoenaed records from several sites that present rumors about future products, which has caused a furor that has not died down.

Suddenly sites formerly known only to rabid readers of Mac-related information, such as AppleInsider, PowerPage and Think Secret, garnered worldwide attention. As a result, Harvard undergraduate Nick Ciarelli, known to fans of Think Secret as Nick de Plume, suddenly found his real identity and his photo published around the world. All this for allegedly publishing what Apple regarded as “trade secrets” about new products.

Now the real goal of Apple’s legal quest was the identity or identities of the people who supplied the information, and it has resulted in major legal skirmishes. A lower court’s ruling that these sites have to produce email records that may disclose the names of people who broke Apple’s confidentiality agreements is under appeal right now, and the matter may drag on for months or years before it is finally settled.

There are several issues, one of which is whether the online writers in question are really journalists, or live in another realm known these days as bloggers. That issue, however, has begun to fall by the wayside, as even the anchors of network TV’s nightly newscasts are now encouraged to present their reviews online. The remaining issue is how far a company can go to unearth information about leaks of what it claims are trade secrets.

The product in question, given the code-name “Asteroid,” was supposedly a breakout box for Apple’s GarageBand, which would allow you to connect different instruments and other gear, using a Mac’s FireWire port. One of the stories even presented supposed illustrations of Asteroid, even bearing a telltale confidential-type label, which indicates that the source of the information may well have been someone who does or at least did work at Apple.

One of the key questions is whether Apple is asking those sites to serve as its investigative arm in finding the snitch. The company claimed that some 25 employees were under the microscope, but stopped short of deposing them under oath or giving them lie detector tests to discover the truth. Understand that lie detector test results are not admissible in court, and some people boast they can defeat such examinations. Even if not totally reliable, however, perhaps they would have helped Apple hone in on potentially deceptive personnel, and, in presenting the incriminating evidence, would have gotten some confessions. It would have been strictly an in-house inquiry, and the outside world wouldn’t be involved.

During that session before an appellate court earlier this month, Apple claimed they’d act the same even if the story had appeared in a major publication, such as, perhaps, The New York Times. Maybe, but I rather think that the Times, despite its lapses in recent years, would not have reproduced the actual plans for the proposed product, a product that, to date, has not even been released.

That indeed may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Regardless, I feel some sympathy for both sides. In today’s competitive environment, premature disclosure of a new product or service could unleash a rash of low-cost knock-off products before Apple can get the real thing out. That could hurt its bottom line. At the same time, reporters have a right to report the news. But they shouldn’t be encouraging company employees to break the law and deliver secret information about new products.

There is an exception, of course, and that’s the whistle blower who reveals the truth about something that can affect our health and welfare. However, a connection device for music recording software doesn’t fit into that category except, perhaps in the unlikely event that it would, under some circumstances, emit a foul odor that can make people sick. But in the real world, nothing of that sort is happening at Apple and it is entitled to protect its information.

Just as much as reporters have the right to attempt to find out what it might be developing. But they still have to be careful about how they receive the information and take a little care about how it is published.

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