Tech gossip: Between you, me and the blog post
IN 2002, a report in the New York Times by the veteran tech writer John Markoff reflected concerns about the fate of "Steven P. Jobs", later to be known as Steve. The late Apple boss had launched the iPod a year earlier, three years after the first iMac rebooted a brand. Yet "there are signs," Markoff wrote, "that Mr Jobs… may be approaching a precipice".
Why? Because Apple was reportedly working on some kind of hand-held computer, a device it had failed to make work in the 1990s. This risky new product "would combine elements of a cellphone and a Palm-like personal digital assistant". The company did not comment - it never does - but, Markoff added: "Industry analysts see evidence that Apple is contemplating what inside the company is being called an 'iPhone'."
It was the first mention of the iPhone in mainstream media and, arguably, the first rumour of the sort that now sustains a vast industry within an industry. Almost five years later, in 2007, the first iPhone arrived. The device has done more than any other since to build and fuel the modern tech rumour mill, a global machine of insiders, spies and reporters trading in speculation, leaks and Chinese whispers. But as they spin into a fresh frenzy with the approach of a seventh iPhone, who are they serving? And who's turning the mill?
Officially, we know nothing about the next iPhone. There is no mention of it at Apple.com and the firm's UK press office declined to engage with The Independent for this story. Apple approaches new products as a secret service might imminent military action. Even senior executives can be kept in the dark until launch day.
It's easy to see why. Apple, Samsung and the rest are locked into the most competitive market there is. It's war with spoils worth billions (almost £5bn in the case of Microsoft's swoop for Nokia this week). No side wants the enemy to gain intelligence in advance of a new product, each of which has the power to make or break a business. The consumer, meanwhile, needs to be teased by the expectation of new toys, but not so much that they'll stop buying current models.
Rumours fill the information vacuum. Unofficially, we know Apple's new device will be called the iPhone 5S, that it will be revealed on Tuesday and put on sale on 20 September. We know it will have a fingerprint scanner and a "champagne" colour option. We know Apple will also announce a cheaper model, the 5C, in a plastic shell available in a range of colours. It's all there at the handy round-up pages at MacRumors, one of dozens of similar sites.
The page goes further, while also explaining much about how it says this sub-industry works: "Given the long lead time and massive supply chain required to produce each iPhone, part leaks from Apple's Chinese manufacturers are the most common way for early information to leak. Leaks become more frequent as we approach the launch."
iPhone leaks started last December, the site adds: "in the form of a rear shell part that was very similar to that of the iPhone 5. There were some subtle differences, however, including a change in the layout of the screw holes for mounting the device's logic board." Pictures and video clips have since emerged, mostly on Chinese websites, of packaging, cases, manuals. A young Australian called Sonny Dickson has apparently turned leaking into a sport. He claims Apple and national security agents are frequent visitors to his blog, and that hits generating advertising revenue have made him rich. He reportedly insists: "Some people think I may be breaking the law, but they don't really know what I do. I'm not breaking any laws that other people don't do." Elsewhere, faked images and false rumours are dispensed cynically to generate clicks.
MacRumors started in 2000, an age ago in digital evolution. It was there for the launch of the iPod (its forum thread from that day is entertaining: "All this hype for something so ridiculous! Who cares about an MP3 player?") The site's editor, Eric Slivka, says his biggest scoop involved a Retina display for the third-generation iPad secured from China weeks before launch. "With the display in hand, we were able to some basic microscopy on it to confirm the pixel density," Slivka says by email.
Before the iPhone cemented Apple's place in popular consumer culture, nobody cared enough to deploy microscopes. Michael Bywater was a tech writer 30 years ago when Steve Jobs gave him what he claims to be Britain's first Apple Macintosh. "I used to get most of my information from some fairly senior people in Apple and it was generally on a 'Don't let this get out, but next month we're...'," he writes. "Or, 'We'll be launching X on such and such a date, and here's a pre-production one to play with and, if you like it, spread the word'."
Bywater, 60, hates the way the industry works today: "Someone finds a bit of plastic in a Longhua dumpster and, like a mad archaeologist, reconstructs the Lost City of Troy around it, while another one says, 'No! This is an amazing new DINOSAUR which we'd never suspected', and a third says: 'It's obviously the prototype casing for Apple's answer to Google Glass, which you wear up your arse for the ultimate selfies.' It's getting like the end-of-the-world cults. You make enough predictions, people remember the ones that come true."
Jobs, who died in 2011, often took a dim view of leaks. In 2010 the tech blog Gizmodo struck gold with a prototype iPhone 4 that had been left in a San Francisco bar by an Apple engineer. When it published pictures and details of the device, the site's editor Brian Lam got a call. "Hi, this is Steve," the caller said, "I really want my phone back." In a subsequent email exchange, Lam told Jobs: "Gizmodo lives and dies like many small companies do. When we get a chance to break a story, we have to go with it or we perish."
The benefits of rumours to sites that rely on clicks to survive is plain, but notwithstanding Apple's secrecy and protestations, surely the right rumours boost its bottom line, too. If so, is it not in Apple's interest to control the mill?
"It's pretty rare for Apple to purposely leak rumours, but it does happen," Slivka writes. "Controlled leaks go through a few trusted publications such as The Wall Street Journal, and it's frequently easy to tell based on content and timing when a report is being leaked directly from Apple… potentially to reassure investors and/or customers or to refute inaccurate rumours, or even to draw attention away from its competitors."
Seth Weintraub, founder of 9to5Mac, a MacRumors rival, adds: "Press is press, and Apple gets a lot of attention and many people talking about the products due to rumours… Would the lines be as long on launch if no one knew anything until launch day?"
The company, of course, won't confirm or deny anything, but there is broad recognition that a kind of rumour-industrial complex exists for all big tech firms. "It's marketing distraction and diversion," says Stuart Miles, founder and boss of Pocket-lint, a UK tech site. "You know if you tell this journalist we'll be doing this that the story will dominate the news cycle. That could either mean another story won't get a mention or if it does, you'll get mentioned too."
The millions of hits these sites score indicates an apparently unlimited appetite for rumour, which increasingly also generates stories in mainstream news sites, but less clear is what benefit it brings the average consumer, particularly if the mill turns out to be as reliable as an iPhone battery (rumour has it the new one is bigger, by the way). "Purchasing decisions can be difficult," Slivka says. "Users want to be careful not to buy an expensive computer or mobile device just before an updated version is released."
In the meantime, if Apple does release Bywater's Google Glass rival with an alternative focus, well, remember where you heard it first.