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Is Checking Apple’s Web Site a Full-Time Job?

The story appeared Monday morning that the executive bio of Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s Senior VP of Design, disappeared from the company’s site. Clearly there were fears that he might no longer be at the company where he helped create a product revolution, and it’s a sure thing, if that were the case, that people who believe Apple is toast would only be emboldened.

Surely, such an individual would be difficult to replace, even though he has a talented team. Indeed, I’d be surprised if Apple didn’t have candidates in the wings if, for some reason, Ive could no longer continue performing his job.

The bio soon returned. Evidently it disappeared temporarily as a consequence of updates being performed on the site. Things happen, and there was clearly no reason to be concerned. Had this happened, even briefly, during a stock market trading day, you can bet the price per share would have sharply fallen before recovering once the situation was clarified. Talk about panic! But the episode occurred overnight, so no harm.

In the past, Apple’s online store has ever-so-briefly posted information about new products before they vanished. Similar episodes have occurred on rare occasions at sites run by third-party Apple dealers.

You have to wonder, though, how such things occur, except as the result of a mistake on the part of a developer who somehow posted the wrong entry. With so many thousands of pages to manage, this is surely a possibility, and sometimes you wonder why it doesn’t happen more often.

But there are times I’ve felt that premature product releases may be done deliberately to get people talking about a possible new Apple product.

When you consider how quickly the curious disappearance of the Ive bio spread to the tech media, you wonder if there aren’t people who have nothing better to do than to check Apple’s site for changes or additions. Within minutes after they appear, the news gets out to the appropriate media.

Most recently, for example, the Apple TV graduated from hobby status to a featured position at Apple’s online store. So right next to Shop iPod is Shop Apple TV. When you click the link, you’ll see the usual sales information, plus a listing for an Apple HDMI cable and the AppleCare Protection. You can buy accessories, such as cables, routers, and speakers, and even a “Certified Refurbished” unit if you want to save $24.

Now Apple didn’t officially announce that Apple TV was no longer a hobby and would get a more featured spot at Apple’s site. Besides, it’s not as if there was a sudden spate of Apple TV ads. One expects there won’t be any substantial promotional effort until the next model arrives, and there are already rumors the launch might come by spring, although when the refreshed Apple TV will go on sale remains somewhat murky.

I do wonder, though, about the process of repeatedly checking Apple’s site. Is there an AppleScript, for example, that does an automatic browser refresh every 10 minutes of every single page? But how would you monitor changes without visual inspection?

Sure, if a link suddenly delivers an unavailable (404) message, that would spark plenty of attention, but not a subtle change unless you actually did a document comparison. Or maybe the folks who are paid to watch Apple’s site also have photographic memories , so they can easily recall even subtle changes.

Yes, it sounds absurd.

So then I wonder how information of this sort spreads so quickly, but not so much as I wonder about the people who discover such things and what sort of lives they lead. Was the case of the disappearing Ive bio an accidental discovery, was somebody randomly checking the posts about Apple’s executive team to see if anyone left recently, or was someone assigned — or did they volunteer — to check the site regularly in search of changes?

This episode surely demonstrates to one and all that nothing that happens in public when it comes to Apple will go undiscovered. Someone, somewhere will discover the fact, or the glitch, and report accordingly. Before long, the story will gain traction and get quoted around the world.

But such situations can work to Apple’s advantage too. When it comes to putting the lid on revelations about new products from the supply chain, the cattle have already left the barn. Despite efforts to keep things a secret, when you have tens or hundreds of thousands of factory workers engaged on building the next Apple gadget, the word is going to get out.

There may be fine details that aren’t revealed, such as Apple’s decision to make iLife, iWork and OS X free upgrades forever. So there is still room for Apple to surprise people, but actual releases of new products, hardware or software, are going to be done in a climate where the essential facts have already been discovered.

Of course, that information will still appear in a sea of unfounded rumors and outright misinformation. But the truth is out there, and Apple receives millions and millions of dollars worth of free publicity as a result. But think of the plight of all those companies nobody cares enough about to look for evidence of unreleased products.