Are Mac Rumors Helping Apple’s Competitors?

June 9th, 2006

There’s a classic battle in force now. One that weighs Apple’s rights to keep its product plans secret, and the desire on the part of not just Mac users, but the entire technology press, to know just what those plans are. There have been legal skirmishes, as most of you know, and it may take months or years for the final verdict.

Now my inspiration for this article came from the ongoing controversy about revealing secret plans to tap telephone calls of Americans, communicating to supposedly suspicious foreign sources, without a warrant. The Bush administration said that The New York Times and other newspapers that published this news were also revealing those secrets to the enemy, as if any of this should have come as a surprise.

Of course, the things that Apple is working on have no national security consequences that I know about, but at the same time, many of their products do have a major impact on millions. That includes the small community of devoted Mac users, the folks who have bought iPods, and a major portion of the press, both online and print. When Apple decided to switch to Intel processors, the news spread around the world, even though the preliminary details had been published days earlier.

Understand I have no problem with publishing rumors and speculation about what Apple is up to. Folks who receive confidential information from Apple employees, contractors or partners may be on a more slippery slope, but that’s a matter for the courts to decide.

Right now, the solution is not at hand. In the most recent action against several Mac rumor-oriented sites and an email provider, Apple won the trial but lost the appeal, or at least the first one. More appeals will no doubt be coming, but one of the more interesting analyses of the decision of the Court of Appeals for California’s Sixth Appellate District appears online at Macworld’s site, and strongly suggests the three judge panel made a decision to rule against Apple’s interests and then manipulated their interpretations of the law to fit that decision.

I can’t say for certain that the theory is true, and if it was, it reverses what you expect a judge’s decision-making process ought to be, which is to research the laws that apply to a particular case and then reach a fair verdict. But the case made in the article is troubling. At the same time, one could, I suppose, suggest that the trial court’s original ruling had the same intent, except that the ruling went in Apple’s favor.

In the end, though, I would hope that there’s no longer any question whether or not journalists whose material appears strictly online can still be called journalists. Besides, what they write can be printed, and many sites give you the option to print specially formatted pages, so I suppose you could call that a magazine or newspaper. I don’t think the law defines the method of printing.

The real issue, however, is Apple’s right to keep its secrets safe. I don’t know if they really worked hard enough to investigate their employees to find if anyone really was responsible for releasing a confidential slide presentation file about a FireWire audio breakout box to an online publisher. It may well be, in the end, that someone hacked into Apple’s servers, clearly an illegal act, to retrieve that information, and then emailed it to potentially interested parties. It may also be that Apple had been working with one of its contract manufacturers on specifications to build the device, and one of the latter’s employees or IT people did the dirty deed. Did it have to be Apple?

Let’s also not forget that the audience for such information is not just a bunch of Mac fanatics who salivate over anything touched by Steve Jobs. That audience may also include Michael Dell, Bill Gates and other potential competitors. So when you and I know about Apple’s plans, they will as well, and it will give them a chance to act on that information and try to sabotage Apple’s competitive advantage.

For example, if the fine details of a new iPod became available months before the actual product shipped, wouldn’t that simply encourage Creative, Sony and other makers of so-called “iPod killers” to change their plans accordingly in the hope of competing?

At the same time, this is the sort of dilemma that won’t, and probably shouldn’t, stop the speculation about Apple’s next insanely great thing. At the same time, I hope the folks who write articles of that sort will consider the full impact before their words are posted.

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4 Responses to “Are Mac Rumors Helping Apple’s Competitors?”

  1. John W. says:

    If the leak is early, then there’s potential damage. If it’s later, then competitors cannot change production plans that may have already started to roll.

  2. Doug Duron says:

    Long before Mac rumors became popular, competitors were doing fine. They don’t need leaks to keep ahead of Apple. Apple is not a threat to them (unless you’re trying to build an “iPod killer” or a music/video service).

  3. Poster says:

    As for the national security angle, PIJ, AQ, MB, Hezzbola, Hamas, and others with tentacles in the U.S may have *suspected* that their calls caused a blip on the spooks’ radar, but now they know. This enables them to change strategy, which is bad news for us all. Unlike Sony, Creative, Dell, and others, terrorists have a quick turn around time and an extremely agile process flow. So any competative threat (as it were) causes an immediate shift in plans. This has the side effect of drying up the intel almost overnight. Now no intel is perfect, but it seems a much better case to have a proactive intel service than a purely reactive one, at least in free societies.

    As for the Mac side of things, Sony, Dell, and so forth may not be able to change production plans if the leak is late in the cycle, but they sure can change PR. The point is that any advantage they gain from such info gives them a leg up. Apple does have a case in prosecuting the publicists of such information, because they actively solicit it. It’s really not comparable to whistle-blowing, because Apple is not doing something illegal. It seems pretty straight-ahead to me.

  4. Allen Wicks says:

    As for the national securty angle:
    The point is not that a free society may have characteristics – like freedom and privacy – that facilitate the enemies of that same society. The point is whether or not the executive branch of that allegedly free society has some kind of right to, unilaterally and in secret, reinterpret the (IMO very clear) laws of that allegedly free society and secretly spy on individuals without due process. Which is what the current US executive branch has been doing.

    As for the Mac side of things:
    Rumor sites are just that, rumor sites. They are a dime a dozen and wrong as often as right. To analogize them with industrial espionage is ludicrous. Does anyone really believe that the best intel Microsft can get is from Mac rumors sites? Get real. If MS relies on rumors sites for its planning Apple has nothing to be concerned about.

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