Apple Inc. finds itself in a peculiar situation. They eyes of the world are focused four-square on what they’re doing, but they’ll only release details on a new product when it fits in with their current market plans. That means that if they don’t want to say anything about the product until it ships, they will say nothing. If, however, they want to drum up interest in some gear that may not appear for months — such as Leopard, Apple TV and the iPhone — they’ll be shouting it to the skies.
But whether silence emerges, or a full-blown media campaign, the speculation about what Apple is up to never stops. In the old days, it was confined to a few Mac rumor sites and the late, lamented “Mac The Knife” column in the long-discontinued MacWeek magazine.
Today, the players are far more respectable. From Wall Street analysts to tech publications and daily newspapers, Apple can just sit back and do nothing, and the conversation will only intensify.
However, if you really want to know what they’re up to, the worst place to go is a rumor report. Sometimes those rumors are correct, but more often than not, the guesswork simply doesn’t pan out. While you might remember the stuff that turns out to be true, even those revelations might be the result of simple common sense. It’s been so many months since a product upgrade appeared, Intel has already released a new processor family, so it stands to reason that Apple might use it in a forthcoming product.
Now, without naming names, there are actually some sites that almost always get things wrong, even when there are official announcements from which to draw information.
On the other hand, it may well be true that some of those rumors, particularly when they appear in such respectable publications as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, are quite likely fed by Apple to stoke the fires. They get an official briefing “on background,” which they can report without direct attribution to the Apple executive who presented the information.
Of course, getting information in this fashion is not unusual. It happens all the time in government circles, and other corporate executives have done it for years. But Apple knows how to play the game. They know which tech writers have the most influence, so this worthy handful and a few selected publications will get first digs on a new product review. The rest of the world has to simply get in line.
Yes, even when I was still working with the traditional news media, I learned my place really quick, and it was not even close to the top of the list.
Another method used to divine what Apple is working on is to consult patent filings. You can learn all sorts of things about what’s happening behind the closed doors at One Infinite Loop if you pore over this information. You will surely unearth loads of nifty ideas that could conceivably end up in a future iteration of Mac OS X, a new Mac, or some other gadget.
However, filing a patent certainly doesn’t guarantee the product or innovative feature will ever see the light of day. As with other technology companies, Apple files patent applications as a defensive measure to protect their rights to the new idea before the competition places a similar application in the queue. Indeed, one major reason why Apple made that $100 million settlement with Creative Labs was simply because the latter beat Apple to the patent office.
In the end, it may be months or years before the concept in that patent appears in a new product. It may never happen, simply because the the idea doesn’t translate well to a retail product. I’m willing to suggest that there may be hundreds of new products under development at any time in Apple’s research labs. Only a few will get the green light from Steve Jobs and the rest of the company’s senior management and make it to the production lines.
But that doesn’t stop patent filings from remaining as fodder for the rumor mills. Since Apple isn’t telling them anything, they might as well see if one of those inventions seems interesting enough for a story. At least the filing has a fair amount of credibility, since it does come from Apple, and bears the name of the employees that led the team responsible for the concept.
So is there any way that an enterprising investigative journalist can unearth the facts about a new Apple product? There doesn’t seem to be any legal method that would bear fruit.
And while the occasional bandit Apple employee or contractor might spill the beans to the press, it’s a sure thing Apple’s legal will quickly clamp down on the offenders. Yes, Apple did lose that lawsuit to get rumor sites to reveal their sources, but that was probably a put-up job anyway. The product reported in those rumors known as Asteroid — a breakout box with multimedia inputs — never saw the light of day and probably never will.
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