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  • 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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