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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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