Apple Legal and the Asteroid Trojan Horse

June 16th, 2006

It’s time to speculate, and I might get a little fanciful here, so be careful about taking me seriously. Of course, some of you never take me seriously. But let’s just say that I think it’s a reasonable prospect that passes the logic test, and worth a lot more discussion. Of course, Apple will never tell, and if such a product truly comes to pass, well, that’s another story.

But consider: Steve Jobs may make a joke about Mac rumor sites during his Macworld keynote presentations, but you just know he doesn’t like it one bit. He surely must feel strange introducing the very same products often described in detail online over the previous few weeks. Sure, the audience will cheer loudly, but there has to be a pang of regret that there are so few real surprises. Even the news of that Intel switch had been widely reported days before it was confirmed.

When Apple legal decided to sue 25 people with the collective name of “John Doe,” you just know something set them off to seek relief from the uncertain world of the American court system. That story, however, has yet to be written, First a victory and then a defeat, and there’s still time to reorder their legal priorities and consider whether to lick their wounds or take their chances in a higher court.

So what product actually generated all that legal wrath? It wasn’t a new Mac, iPod, operating system or anything that would in any sense be termed revolutionary. Instead, it was a FireWire interface or breakout box, code-named Asteroid, designed to let you connect your mics and instruments to your Mac. Period.

What’s so unusual about that? You can already find a number of similar products in music stores. In fact, Apple already sells some of the most popular varieties, such as the $399.99 M-Audio FireWire 410 Audio/MIDI Interface. In fact, published reports about Asteroid never indicated any feature or form factor that you could regard as unique.

Now the recent court ruling that went against Apple suggested that Apple’s alternative would be “revolutionary,” but in what respect? Would it look prettier, be cheaper? Would it somehow interface better with GarageBand, or one of Apple’s professional audio applications? Would it ease the recording process in some unique fashion that would empower budding musicians to greater levels of creativity?

As you might have noticed, no such product ever appeared. This is not unusual, of course. It is common for a company to design a product, but decide, for whatever reason, not to release it. Here Apple’s marketing people may have examined the potential competition and found nowhere to make a difference, and put Asteroid out to pasture.

So why all the fuss? Why should Apple spend millions of dollars in attorney fees and get the reputation of an unprincipled bully to protect this particular alleged trade secret? Maybe Asteroid was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, and someone at Apple legal, or perhaps Steve Jobs himself, decided that enough was enough, and the incessant product leaks had to be stopped.

Of course, you still read rumors about possible new Apple products, so that well isn’t dry. But what if the Asteroid concept never really existed beyond the presentation file that got into the hands of some online writers? What if Apple put the whole thing together simply to smoke out some moles in the company, to find out who was spilling genuine juicy information to the press?

In the end, Apple apparently still doesn’t know the identity of the guilty party. No doubt, it felt that the operators of small Web sites and email hosting services would quickly cave and deliver the information they sought. The resistance and public outcry surely came as a surprise, but this particular legal battle was never about the product, but about the leak.

Now I could be wrong about all this. Maybe Asteroid will someday appear in the same or a totally different form. But I’m not holding my breath.

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8 Responses to “Apple Legal and the Asteroid Trojan Horse”

  1. gopher says:

    In a way, Apple set the path for first ammendment protection of “media” sites on the internet. By doing so, they helped make the internet that much more a democratic system. It has also discovered it needs to do a better job of containing leaks within its organization, since once it is out in the open, there is nothing it can do to stop it. And the court basically said, not even a lawsuit would stop it. Apple will have to make sure people with knowledge of the product never leave the company until it is complete, and it may have to bow to employee demands more frequently since someone could say they will want to release a secret if they don’t cave in to the demands of certain employees. In the end, it will make Apple a better company, because when the employees are happy, they’ll be able to make higher quality products. And it will have to take seriously those demands.

  2. John says:

    It is obvious that the night owl does not understand, appreciate or even know the elements of Apple’s court case. The night owl needs a little sleep.

  3. And maybe you could explain to all of us those “elements” that we do not understand.


  4. A week ago my aunt Anne Onymous printed a similar speculation at

    Was that a “trial balloon” of this idea that you posted pseudonymously? Have I discovered her secret identity? Wheels within wheels…

    –Anakin Onesimus

  5. Or great minds think alike. I didn’t see that story, but I’m not surprised others have come up with variations on this theme. It sort of flows into the recesses of your mind if you consider the possibilities.


  6. Robert Pritchett says:

    Did you notice how quickly the head legal eagle at Apple quit shortly after that ruling?

  7. Says John:

    It is obvious that the night owl does not understand, appreciate or even know the elements of Apple’s court case. The night owl needs a little sleep.

    It seems to me that, after being asked several days ago to deliver specifics of his claim, maybe he has been too sleepy to respond. Besides, the article wasn’t about the elements of the case, but a possible reason why it was brought in the first place. That’s a distinction that John evidently didn’t notice. Maybe he needs some rest.


  8. Ex-apple employee says:

    “What if Apple put the whole thing together simply to smoke out some moles in the company, to find out who was spilling genuine juicy information to the press?”

    I can tell you from experience that this is not an unreasonable assumption. It’s hard to overstate the culture of paranoia that surrounds new product development there. When I was working on documenting one aspect of Mac OS X 10.0, I was not allowed to install it on my system. I had to go to the secure section of the campus, get badged in by one of the team members, and see this particular technology in his office. Any screenshots I wanted had to go through them and be approved by the team leader. As we approached release, there was a demo at Town Hall by none other than Steve himself. The list of invitees was short and double-screened, with security at the door. He brought the demo with him – they didn’t want it on the network. You get the idea, I think…

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