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  • Of Apple Rumors and Patent Filings

    November 2nd, 2009

    These days, companies will frequently file patents about each and every thing they can as a defensive measure. That’s because there are loads of sharks (or patent trolls) in the waters just waiting to file infringement lawsuits, particularly in certain districts in Texas that seem to attract such actions and provide a high degree of success to the plaintiffs.

    However, once a patent is filed, the specifics of the proposed invention become public, so everyone knows about it, even one’s competitors. Those patents are also fodder for the Mac rumor sites, who will seize upon Apple’s filings as evidence of their next great product innovation.

    Sometimes those files do portend a possible shipping product, witness the Magic Mouse. It was all out there in the days before the fancy new input device’s arrival. Without going into chapter and verse and bore you to death, many of those filings, however, represent features, products or services that will actually never see the light of day. But how do you really know?

    On the other hand, a juicy patent application can be summarized in a lengthy piece that is almost guaranteed to attract a fairly large number of hits. This is particularly true if the innovation seems revolutionary enough to be meaningful. When it comes to the world of Mac rumors, one site will quote another, each passing the story up the line with a few embellishments.

    It sort of reminds me of that little parlor trick they used to do on late night TV. One person whispered a joke to someone. The one who received the story transferred it to another party, and on it went. After ten generations of this word of mouth information transfer, the story finally recited usually had nothing more than a passing resemblance to the original. Such are the limitations of verbal communication, although humans have never tired of the technique.

    When it comes to the written word, you’d think there would be little room to distort, but even a casual attempt at interpretation may be sufficient to totally distort the basis of the report. After a while, the original rumor site that published the story may find that the tale simply takes a life of its own.

    At the end of the day, it comes back to whether these rumor sites are actually providing reliable information, just made up stories, or some vague combination of both. To be fair, AppleInsider, one of the larger rumor sites, also publishes regular news reports about Apple and pretty detailed product reviews. In other words, they’ve moved to the mainstream and their repertoire of rumors isn’t much more extensive that what you sometimes find in the mainstream media.

    However, you have to wonder where they get all those stories. I am not inclined to think they just invented the juicy details, although I suppose that’s possible for some sites. It may well be there are people out there who claim, accurately or otherwise, that they are closely associated to Apple or one of its suppliers and are thus capable of delivering accurate information. Certainly I would hope they are properly vetted and if they fail to demonstrate they are capable of delivering consistently truthful reports, they’d be dropped like hot potatoes.

    When it comes to one of Apple’s favored publications, such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, yes it’s true they publish supposed Apple rumors as well. The difference is that I’ve long held the suspicion that they are being given these stories on deep background by Apple directly. They cannot, of course, identify the source, but when the story turns out to be true, as it often does, you know there had to be some official participation.

    In the end, rumors are actually good for Apple. The company’s penchant for secrecy and tight control of the information they choose to release only encourages rumors and speculation. If the media can’t get the facts they seek, they are more apt to make a guess, educated or otherwise. People who come forth claiming to be in the know might be taken far more seriously than they might otherwise be if Apple were more forthcoming about public information.

    That, and the possibility that Apple is responsible for some of the more fascinating rumors, only demonstrates how well they can manage the flow of information. Of course, being secretive doesn’t always help. When problems arise with a product or service, taking too long to acknowledge the issue, while customer complaints simmer, doesn’t help people feel warm and fuzzy about Apple. Maybe it hasn’t yet forced many people to go to the Dark Side, where the situation is apt to be worse, but that’s still not the way to treat loyal customers.

    I’d like to think that the fact that Steve Jobs was a tiny bit more forthcoming about his serious illness and liver transplant may also portend a slight change in Apple’s public information strategy. Meantime, there are still all those patent filings to chew over.



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    10 Responses to “Of Apple Rumors and Patent Filings”

    1. Richard says:

      A tiny bit more forthcoming? Had the news been “Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple dies after complications following a liver transplant”, what do you think the stock price would have done? No change? I hardly think so.

      Let’s face it, Jobs is lucky not to be in jail because he has been tap dancing on a path which has resulted in such serious consequences for other executives for quite some time now and not just with issues involving his health.

      On the product side, Apple seems to be ignoring some very obvious changes that need to be made, ones they should not have to listen to continued feed-back to have figured out. In the mean time, more observers are concluding that Windows is “good enough” and that the era of continued reboots has passed. More than ever, Apple needs to demonstrate its relevance.

      • @Richard, Windows has been perceived as “good enough” for years. But Apple’s sales still increase. Indeed, even during the initial week after Windows 7 was released, the Mac OS market share actually went up, contrary to what some might expect.

        Peace,
        Gene

    2. Richard says:

      Gene,

      I am aware of the release week figures. It is difficult to discern any particular relationship between these events and short term changes that reflect prior sales being reported. If it is a long term trend which continues, great. Apple still needs to focus on releasing product that are “right”. The most recent releases certainly are not. I have seen them in the store and would not consider purchasing any of the new releases unless I absolutely had to “right now”. The high-glare screens are an abomination, especially at 27 inches. The Mini absolutely need to have an eSATA port. A combo eSATA/USB2 port (if you have not seen these, check it out) would have done nicely. The Mini badly needs something faster than USB or Firewire for external storage. (Yes, I know about the SATA hack, but why should customers have to get into issues of voiding the warranty from the outset?) Unless Apple delivers Light Peak (and a slew of accessory external enclosures accompany the release) in January ’10 Apple have missed the obvious. I, for one, was waiting for the release to get a Mini with eSATA. Forget that.

      Cheers

    3. Karl says:

      @ Richard,
      I haven’t found a lot to like about Apple’s current line up either. (Though the MacMini Server does look a bit interesting.) But part of that is because I’m not ready to buy so it’s going to take a bit more for me to jump in and buy a new Mac. Are you in the same boat? Reason I’m asking is, just because we haven’t been tempted doesn’t mean Apple is off the mark.

      I don’t agree with your post that Apple needs to do “this” and “that”, simply because right now Apple continues to turn a profit and gain marketshare durring this recession.

    4. Andrew says:

      The fact that Apple doesn’t offer exactly what “I want” at any given time doesn’t mean that Apple is off the mark, only that they didn’t read my mind to design and build a product specifically for me.

      Apple’s current lineup has its faults, glossy being one of them, however those faults are not unique to Apple. Very few companies offer laptops with matte screens these days, and Apple is one of them, though only at the 15″ and 17″ sizes. I want a matte screen MacBook Air, but as Mick Jagger said, you can’t always get what you want.

    5. dfs says:

      Apple’s famous secrecy policy has spawned a whole industry of Apple-watching, not entirely unlike Sovietology used to be, whose practitioners try to parse Apple’s future plans by looking at such things as the patent applications it files, the job advertisements it puts out, and whatever can be found out about its arrangements with subcontractors. Not always with any great success. In this case, it needs to be borne in mind that a company can file a patent application for a variety of reasons, without necessarily having any intention to rush that thing into immediate production.

      And, yes, Richard is right, the Feds have a history of being exceedingly gentle towards Apple. The SEC could easily have gone after them for concealing the facts of Steve’s health, because a publicly-trading company is required to disclose all so-called material facts that might affect the value of its stock. And before, what was it, 2006? when the law was changed, Apple was acting illegally by controlling the price of its products at the retail level as well as the wholessale level, and the Feds chose to look the other way. Why does Apple get this kid glove treatment? My own theory is that the Feds have traditionally seen Apple as a useful counterweight to Microsoft, and have been so focused on going after Microsoft for monopolistic business practices that they have been willing to give Apple a lot of leeway.

    6. Karl says:

      @dfs
      Are the feds really being gentle or is the right to medical privacy why they didn’t “go after Apple”? It’s a touchy subject… I guess the feds could argue that is falls under “material facts that might affect the value of stock”. But assume the counter argument would be the right to medical privacy. Seems like it would be a grid lock and a waste of tax payer’s money so maybe the feds chose not to fight that battle. ???

    7. Richard says:

      Karl,

      The Feds are being gentle. Just answer the question I asked about the stock price and you will have the answer to the relevance of Steve Jobs’ health.

      dfs’ theory is as good as any and better than most. I have frequently wondered if the Fed simply found it useful to keep Apple going (despite its market capitalization) as a “gadfly”/nuisance for some of the other tech companies. Perhaps they simply have a soft spot in their hearts (the Fed?!) for the underdog. We will never know for sure unless there is a “tell all” book published.

      There was also the matter of insider trading and a number of other issues which Apple received a pass on that other tech companies did not. Apple got very favorable treatment, not that I wish it would have been otherwise.

      Cheers

      • Karl says:

        @Richard,
        Interesting… but I’m not convinced that the feds had any legal case to force Apple to disclose any health information of any of Apple employees.

        As far as the other passes that Apple got and Microsoft and others didn’t. It was my understanding that the feds truly didn’t find much to nail to Apple. Now maybe that was because the feds like Apple better then Microsoft or are looking for leverage against Microsoft, I can’t really say.

        But yeah, I can see a court going easier on an underdog, taking preference towards Apple because of fact that Microsoft is the marketshare leader.

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