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The Speculation Department: How Apple Tried to Trick Rumor Sites!

In recent days, Apple has paid some $700,000 in legal fees to the defendants in its failed action to locate the source behind revelations about an alleged product under development bearing the code-name Asteroid.

Although the product got lots of attention as a result of the lawsuits, it never saw the light of day. Supposedly an audio breakout box of some sort, there is no hint that such a gadget ever came close to release, or even that it ever went beyond a few sketches.

But what about the documents in the lawsuit, mentioning published reports about documents that were supposedly part of a presentation on Asteroid? Just what is going on here?

Well, it’s quite true that Apple, typical of technology companies in general, may have lots of products in various stages of development that never see the light of day. There are many reasons for this. In some cases, the goals for that project aren’t realized, or a marketing department decides that it just can’t succeed.

I would rather consider another possibility. It’s clear that Apple would prefer the rumor sites would just go away, although, frankly, the company benefits from all the speculation, whether accurate or otherwise. Sure, Steve Jobs will make some lame jokes about the rumor sites during a keynote, but you just know he’s seething inside about what they do.

He’s even more incensed about the people inside Apple who apparently feed critical information about new products to the press. This is not just a matter of hating the press. Any technology company has the perfect right to protect its trade secrets, and Apple employees, contractors, suppliers and developers all sign extensive nondisclosure agreements ageeing not to disclose confidential information.

So imagine if Jobs or perhaps one of Apple’s attorneys came up with the bright idea of creating a Trojan Horse product to smoke out the leakers. Thus begat Asteroid.

So when the news first appeared, it wasn’t just a matter of lawyers sending cease and desist orders to the offending sites, but a larger strategy played out, that of filing lawsuits to unearth the identities of the “John Does” who provided the information. I don’t know what Apple’s real expectations might have been, but they depended upon the courts siding with them, that the people who run those sites weren’t really journalists, but just “bloggers,” as if a distinction of that sort truly exists. Thus, they must reveal their sources, or so they thought.

I suppose Apple had to be optimistic when it won its first skirmish, but when an appeals court turned them down, I suppose they realized it wasn’t worth the expense and threw in the towel.

In the end, all Apple did was fuel the hit counts on the rumor sites that were “lucky” enough to be targeted for these legal actions. Nick Ciarelli, the Harvard undergraduate who runs Think Secret, for example, briefly became a national celebrity with interviews appearing in the mainstream press.

This doesn’t mean that Apple has given up trying to stop leakers, and to kill the rumor sites. But they have to feel chastened over the turn of events.

In a sense they’re lucky. I mean, how many rumor sites have arisen over what new products Dell is producing? Of course, you can predict the next Dell upgrade from the Intel and AMD processor roadmaps. As for Microsoft, well, it’s also apparent that the company might actually fund or fuel prerelease coverage of its products, beyond what they already tell you of course.

Indeed, in the days before the last Macworld, few tech pundits could stop talking about the iPhone. Even mainstream writers got in the act, and it quickly became a feeding frenzy. By the time Steve Jobs actually took the wraps off the product, worldwide attention was focused on his Macworld Expo keynote. All that free publicity generated by silence. Apple didn’t have to drop a single hint. You can’t buy coverage like that.

Indeed, Apple needs the rumor sites as much as they need Apple.

As to Asteroid, does anyone really care if it never sees the light of day?