Apple Rumors: Separating the Probable from the Impossible

on February 15, 2012
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Drawing from  Apple fuel cell patent application.
Drawing from Apple fuel cell patent application.

It’s silly season again in Apple-land. As usual the company is holding off on an announcement of its next announcement until the last-minute, but there’s a general consensus in the tech world that Tim Cook will unveil the next version of the iPad the first week in March.

I don’t know what Apple is going to announce. Neither does anyone else who is writing about it. But that doesn’t stop anyone, a the rumors can be expected to reach fever pitch in the next couple of weeks. Here are some handy rules for making sense of the Apple rumor machine.

 

  • Consider the source. Apple has a long history of feeding product leaks to The Wall Street Journal. So I take today’s report that the new iPad will include 4G LTE wireless more seriously than most. Stories based on reports in Taiwan’s Digitimes, which bases its predictions on vague rumblings in the Asian supply chain, not so much. Analysts’ predictions are particularly suspect. Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster has been predicting the imminent arrival of an Apple television for years. Some day he’ll be right.
  • A prototype is not a product. Another WSJ report says Apple has been testing an iPad with an 8″ display in Asia. I don’t doubt that this story is correct, but just because they are testing it doesn’t mean it will make it to market. Prototyping is very expensive and for most companies, the existence of prototypes is tantamount to a product announcement. But Apple has $100 billion in the bank. It can afford to prototype anything it damn well pleases without any commitment to production. Maybe Apple will do a smaller iPad; maybe they won’t, but the fact that there may be a prototype out there doesn’t say much, one way or the other.
  • A patent really isn’t a product. Apple employes a lot of really smart, creative people and they come up with a lot of interesting ideas. Like most companies with a lot of money, Apple will file for a patent on anything that is novel and looks potentially useful. And since patent filings become public after 18 months, they are one of the very few windows into Apple’s secretive product development process. But only a small percentage of patents ever make it into products. And patent lawyers are very good at writing applications that obscure what an invention might be good for. So don’t hold your breath waiting for an iPhone powered by the hydrogen fuel cell revealed in a December Apple patent disclosure (drawing above).
  • Does it make sense? For several years, we were treated to regular rumors about an iPhone “nano.” Supposedly, Apple was going to come out with a smaller, cheaper version of its iconic phone. No one ever bothered to explain what the advantage of a smaller iPhone might be, especially at a time when the competition, such as it is, was steadily growing bigger. No one bothered to explain how a smaller iPhone could cost significantly less without compromising the user experience (a smaller display alone would save very little, and might even cost more.) With android phones soaring to 5″ plus, the iPhone nano rumors seems to have finally died out, but I expect to start hearing reports of a bigger iPhone this summer any time now. Don’t believe those either.
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  • Don’t trust “confirmation.” Once a upon a time, if a publication reported that a report had been confirmed, it meant that someone in an official capacity and with authority to do so had said it was correct. In gadget blogs, however, confirmation simply means that a rumor has cropped up somewhere else. More likely than not, it’s the original rumor eating its tail like an ouroburos. Unless the confirmation comes from someone like Tim Cook, Scott Forstall, Phil Schiller, or Eddie Cue, pay no attention.
  • Consider the timing. Once Apple announces that it will have an announcement, the nature of the rumors changes dramatically. The reports get much more focused and much more believable. By the time Cook and friends get up on stage, everyone in the room has a pretty good idea of the details of the announcement. Partly this is because as the event nears, the circle of people informed necessarily gets wider and begins to include significant numbers of business partners and other outsiders. Secrecy gets very hard to maintain. And Apple, which is as good at managing expectations as anyone in the business, does its own strategic leaking.  So the reports you hears within a week or two of an Apple announcement are much more likely to be true. But still, there is almost always a significant surprise or two that doesn’t leak out.