Do the Mac Rumor Sites Have Near-Total Freedom?

March 16th, 2009

Once upon a time, Apple courted the Mac press big time, particularly the major magazines. When a new product was being readied, editors would receive an early preview under a confidentiality agreement, so they could get a full feature story on the new product that would be published around the time of the actual release date.

Of course, that’s long ago and far away, except for a handful of “favored” mainstream outlets. These days, the Internet has taken over, and you can read Apple’s official press release and interviews with their product people within moments after a new product announcement. If there’s an actual media event of some sort, you may even have a chance to see a QuickTime video of the presentation shortly thereafter.

The other resource for new product information is the Mac rumor sites, which are nowadays often quoted in the mainstream media. Indeed, the the traditional outlets frequently have their own stories about such things, and I do suspect some of them are actually fed by Apple to raise interest in the possibilities of a new product to a fever pitch.

But Apple clearly doesn’t like the rumor sites, and has been known to send legal cease and desist orders with demands they remove a piece of artwork, for example, which they feel comes too close to the actual product. Of course, such behavior only reinforces the impression that the report was accurate.

Normally the letter is sufficient, because the sites, not having sufficient legal resources, will simply take down the material and that, as they say, is that. If they actually refused, it would present an interesting legal situation, with no certain outcome.

Now when a major paper such as The New York Times publishes a rumor, Apple will stay silent, or perhaps communicate their displeasure quietly to the appropriate executives. They don’t want to get into a legal skirmish with such a significant resource, even if that resource is not doing as well as it used to do financially.

A few years back, in the wake of one fairly consistent set of stories from the rumor sites, Apple filed legal action, demanding email records and other documents from the sites and their Web hosts in their quest to smoke out the real offender. These rumors were all about plans to build a FireWire audio breakout box, code-named “Asteroid.”

Now as you might notice, no such product ever appeared. In fact, I am of the opinion that it was meant as a Trojan Horse designed to expose the name or names of the people who are really feeding information to the rumor outlets. I presume they felt someone at Apple was guilty, although it doesn’t appear they made a forthright effort to unearth that person’s real identity. Evidently giving their legal department some work was more productive, or they felt it would be a way to destroy the rumor sites once and for all.

After winning in a lower court runing, Apple lost during the appeal process, and they gave up. Well, not completely. They managed to ink a settlement with one rumor site, ThinkSecret, which shut down a few months thereafter. The other sites are still around.

These days, rumors about forthcoming Apple products still come fast and thick. Occasionally, there’s a request from Apple’s legal eagles to remove something and those requests are complied with. So maybe it’s an uneasy truce. Perhaps Apple didn’t relish the torrent of negative publicity they received when they decided to pursue a lawsuit from beginning to end. So be it.

However, it’s clear to me that these self-same rumor sites don’t have carte blanche to expose Apple’s secrets. Sure, they might reprint information from the “seed notes” of a prerelease version of Mac OS X. They might even get away with a few screen shots, though that behavior will generally bring a prompt response from Apple to pull the illustrations, but usually too late to prevent them from being moved offshore to some mirror site.

Now in light of the fact that Microsoft can be forthcoming — sometimes a little too forthcoming — about its future product plans, you have to wonder why their biggest competitor has taken the secrecy route. But consider that Microsoft will often never deliver a product they demonstrate, and when they do, it may not be quite what was originally represented. That’s generally postponed to the distant future, where the “real” version will appear, but usually it never does.

The exception would be the betas of future versions of Windows, Office or Internet Explorer. They get plenty of exposure, but not always to Microsoft’s benefit. As I mentioned in this week’s newsletter, for example, prerelease versions of Internet Explorer 8 have been shown to be inferior to every single major browser on the planet. Windows 7 seems to have gotten acceptable reviews, but Microsoft has already claimed they are tinkering with the interface yet again, hoping to do better.

Perhaps they are hoping to come up with something that more closely matches the Mac OS perhaps?

In any case, even if Steve Jobs were never to return to the helm at Apple, don’t expect their methods of handling information about future products to change.

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