Apple Rumors: Separating the Probable from the Impossible

Steve Wildstrom / February 15th, 2012
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.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • “Apple has a long history of feeding product leaks to The Wall Street Journal.”

    Apple has no such “history” and there is no evidence Apple does this. Making the statement diminishes the work of the journalists involved. People *want* to believe it so they do – evidence be damned.

    • Rich

      How do YOU know Apple has no such “history” and there is no evidence Apple feeds product leaks to The Wall Street Journal?

      • Excellent and valid question.

        I have worked in the industry for over 15 years and am friends with and/or have spoken to every major (and most of the minor) columnists, journalists and pundits in the Apple/Mac space.

        Off the record and on, every one of them says Apple has never done controlled leaks. Every one of them also say they wish Apple would.

        Your next excellent and valid question Rich, should be directed at Steve Wildstrom. Ask him what proof he has that “Apple has a long history of feeding product leaks to The Wall Street Journal.”

        • Rich

          Okay Steve, what proof do you have?

          • Do we read anything into the fact that Steve has not responded to you almost 24 hours later?

          • Yes. What you can read into is is the fact that I have been swamped and am just now catching up with comments.

          • See my response to Shawn King above. With respect to Mountain Lion, it is no secret that a select group of journalists and analysts were pre-briefed. In this case, Apple seems to have decided who m to brief primarily on how much they trusted them to honor the embargo, which is why a lot of tech blogs seems to have been left out. To my amazement, this actually worked and the secret held until the appointed hour.

          • ” it is no secret that a select group of journalists and analysts were pre-briefed.”

            Absolutely. Happens all the time and in every industry. I can’t count the number of embargoes I’ve been under and NDA’s I’ve signed.

            “To my amazement, this actually worked and the secret held until the appointed hour.”

            Why are you amazed that a select group of tech journalists could be trusted to keep a secret? 🙂

          • steve_wildstrom

            Because embargoes are getting harder and harder to maintain. For example, a couple of weeks ago, I agreed to an embargoed briefing on Wolfram Alpha Pro. Stephen Wolfram had barely finished his web presentation before someone broke the embargo. Apple could make it work because they were selective about whom they briefed and because people know that with Apple, there will be consequences. The company has many ways of making its displeasure felt.

          • “Because embargoes are getting harder and harder to maintain.”

            Not in a “one company town” like Apple and the tech media.

            “Stephen Wolfram had barely finished his web presentation before someone broke the embargo.”

            Doesn’t that mean that Wolfram should be more selective as to who they put under embargo? And, as long as there is no downside and plenty of upside to breaking the rules, unscrupulous people will.

            As in so many things, Apple is smarter than the rest of the tech industry in this. They are *very* selective as to whom they bless with information and the information they have is “important” and not trivial.

            It’s either that or the hit squads that Apple sends out after those who break NDAs…..but I’ve said too much….

        • Often when Apple released a new product they briefed certain sources on an exclusive basis. The best example is the launch of the Mac with Macworld in Jan 1984. They briefed and let Time behind the scenes for the launch of the “angle poise” iMac – they have worked with Newsweek and others on exclusives. At Macworld in the 90’s we worked on exclusives under NDA – but because of the difficulty of controlling the whole magazine print eco-system prior to the official this this was too nerve wracking – and it was much better to work without such NDA restrictions. There are many subtle ways Apple can “signal” direction or more importantly tries to stop the rumor mill going completely off the rails especially when incorrect rumors could really hurt a roll-out strategy. They don’t have to blatantly feed product leaks to select sources.

          • FINALLY! Someone backs me up! Thanks Colin. 🙂

    • benbajarin

      Given the large depth and scope of people who were pre-briefed to the details of Mountain Lion, I am curious on your thoughts now on this subject. I assume you read Grubers account of how it all went down.

      OF course this was not “leaked” since the NDA was honored by every person. But product details were exposed prior.

      • “I am curious on your thoughts now on this subject.”

        The same as before. As you say, this wasn’t a leak by Apple. I guess it’s a matter of degrees/definition.

        Wildstrom is intimating that Apple, as a matter of corporate policy, gives information, intended for publication, to the Wall Street Journal before it gives that information (if at all) to other media outlets. I maintain Apple does no such thing and there is no proof that anyone has put forth that they do. It’s just an technological “urban legend” that people *want* to believe.

        “But product details were exposed prior.” This is a bit confusing. Are you saying product details of Mountain Lion were exposed prior to this AM?

        • Benbajarin

          Based on what you have read from Gruber and others what would you conclude as to whether they got information prior to today?

          • Oh, they absolutely did. I know for a fact they did. Gruber even said so in his article:

            “We were sitting in a comfortable hotel suite in Manhattan just over a week ago.”

            Several people who were blessed by Apple with Mountain Lion previews also told me they were meeting with Apple last week. It was “secret known to many”.

    • I was thinking in particular of Apple beat reporter Yukari Kane’s remarkable string of scoops in advance of Apple product announcements. She’s an excellent reporter, but she was right on a little too often to be doing it without inside help (which does not detract from her in the least; getting Apple to trust you is a huge accomplishment in itself.)

      • There’s a difference between “inside help” and the intimation that as a matter of corporate policy, Apple does “controlled leaks”. The former happens, the latter does not and there is no evidence of it I, or anyone else, can find.

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