Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Think Stupid

Today I'm taking a break from torture, journalist prostitutes, and self-righteous racists to put on my geek hat for a spell.

Apple is suing three rumor sites -- O'Grady's PowerPage, Apple Insider, and Think Secret -- alleging that these sites have harmed the company by revealing trade secrets to the public.
PowerPage and Apple Insider published rumors about Asteroid, a possible Apple product for musicians. Think Secret published news of Apple's new 'headless' Mac two weeks prior to its announcement last January at MacWorld; the site also revealed news of the iPod before it appeared.

For these crimes, Apple has hauled the sites into court and is trying to force them to reveal where they got this information. The sites, which are run on a shoestring (Think Secret's staff consists of one person, Nicholas Ciarelli, a 19-year-old Harvard freshman), are hoping to rely on the slim privilege accorded (some) journalists that protects them from revealing their sources.

It's a nasty bit of business, very much like the Judith Miller-Matt Cooper fiasco in the Valerie Plame affair. Apple has gotten slapped around in the press for it, and rightly so.

The questions I'd like to ask are: What secrets? Secret from whom? And what grave damage has befallen Apple as a result of these disclosures?

It's not like these sites are publishing the secret formula for Flubber. There are no blueprints being divulged; no one's taking Apple prototypes apart piece by piece and publishing photos of every circuit board, the way some Palm-obsessed sites have done. There's no information being released that would give any advantage to Apple's competitors.

A product manager from a company that makes portable music players once told me quite matter of factly about what the new iPod was going to look like, three months before Apple announced it. It wasn't like he was sharing some big secret. He knew about it because he was in the same business. There are exactly two companies that make hard drives small enough to fit into MP3 players, and everybody uses them. You want them to build you a million drives, they need a little notice. So the word gets out. It's no secret.

Yet, Apple cultivates a culture of secrecy. It is one of the rare companies in the tech field that does not disclose products to journalists before they're announced to the public. Most firms will make you sign Non-Disclosure Agreements where you agree to embargo the information until a certain day and time. It's the only way long-lead monthly magazines can compete with weeklies, dailies, and the Internet. Not Apple. They're above all that. They're a total pain in the ass about it.

Last fall I wrote a blurb about one of their notebooks that I knew was overdue for an upgrade. I must have asked their PR droids four times if and when the upgrade was coming -- sorry, can't help you. Then Apple announced the new iBook, the day my story about the old one hit the newsstands.

What does this have to do with the lawsuits? Everything. These rumor sites exist precisely because Apple shrouds its products in secrecy. Do you see a DellSecrets Web site? GatewayInsider? HP PowerPage? No. Because a) there are plenty of places where you can get information about these companies, and b) they're dull as dirt.

And guess what? Because the only information about upcoming Apple products is coming from places like Think Secret and Apple Insider, anything they publish becomes news. If Apple churned out a press release about their new ButtPod ("trims inches from your heinie as you surf the Net") they'd get decent coverage in the trade press and some of the newspaper tech columns. When word of the ButtPod starts swirling around the rumor sites, however, it's front page news. It gets a lot more play, generates a lot more buzz. In other words, it serves Apple's purposes to let this news leak out from rumor sites. When you command only 3% of the market for personal computers, you need all the buzz you can get.

Yet Apple is trying to intimidate these sites into silence -- telling them to either shut up or get shut down. It's also trying to intimidate the leakers, who are most likely beta testers or other folks not employed by Apple Inc. It's an incredibly short-sighted strategy that will hurt them in the long run, yet they plod ahead, tossing lawyers like hand grenades at their most rabid fans.

It inspires a new advertising slogan. "Apple: The New RIAA." Kinda catchy, don't you think?


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