Apple calls off the attack dogs

Dan Warne
4 February, 2008
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The gold standard of Apple rumour sites has, for a long time, been the threatening letter from Apple’s lawyers. If you got an anonymous tip and published it, and then got the threat of legal action from Apple’s San Francisco attorneys, O’Melveny & Myers LLP, you could be sure that what you were publishing was either true or close to the truth.

Apple doesn’t sue people for publishing completely wrong rumours. They only take action to try to suppress real information that has been leaked.

So, as a blogger, the game was to deftly avoid being hit with any real legal action by Apple (by removing your article from your website, for example), all the while, surreptitiously making sure people knew exactly how to find the info in Google caches, other discussion forums, and so on.

Despite the futility of the whole process, Apple has, for years, been spending tonnes of money with its lawyers threatening bloggers and news sites – even though it probably has very little actual effect in suppressing information. After all, once something is out on the internet, it never really goes away.

When Apple sued Think Secret blogger Nicholas Ciarelli in 2004 over leaking info about a Firewire audio product codenamed “Asteroid” that never came to market, it was clearly transcending simple deterrence by threat and entering the realm of carrying through with aggressive legal action.

The whole thing was a PR disaster. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who found Apple’s actions palatable or justifiable, especially because the laws Apple was relying on were unique in the world to California, and they hinged on proving that bloggers do not have equal status with journalists. Plus, there was the unpalatable aspect that Apple was suing a site published by, and read by, its most avid fans.

Apple’s never the kind of company to go scampering with its tail between its legs, so despite the fact that the whole affair had generated bad press in epic proportions, Apple pressed on with its legal action. Three years later, in December last year, it reached a settlement with Ciarelli which involved Think Secret ceasing publication. The terms of the settlement have not been disclosed, but there’s ample anecdotal evidence that Ciarelli got a fat cheque from Apple written out for an amount that was too good to resist.

As repugnant as Apple’s actions may be to people who favour freedom of information, it’s obvious that secrecy is key to Apple’s success. Stopping competitors from getting hold of Apple’s ideas and cloning them is one motivation, certainly. But the true reason why Apple so vigorously suppresses discussion of its unannounced products must surely be its need to maintain the element of surprise for its product announcements.

Steve Jobs’ favourite scenario is clearly to unveil a product which is a complete surprise to the market, yet also perfectly matched to customers’ needs. When he announces that “one last thing” at each Macworld, customers are inevitably wowed, surprised and ready to plonk down their cash without asking too many questions.

So, when Apple announced the thoroughly-predicted MacBook Air at the latest Macworld, there was a real sense of “was that it?” Sure, it’s a nice looking computer. But everyone knew about it in advance due to the numerous rumour sites who had pretty much unveiled the whole thing in advance.

I hate to say it, but there was something almost Microsoftian about the latest Macworld. Although Apple itself wasn’t responsible for any of the MacBook Air hype, there had been plenty of hype in the days and weeks leading up to Macworld, and the end result was kinda disappointing. There was no surprise.

Microsoft demonstrated beautifully why talking about a product too much before launch is a really bad idea. It had built up expectations about Vista so high, for so long, that when the final product shipped, it frankly couldn’t be anything but a disappointment.

This “post-hype-flop” is a nightmare scenario for Steve Jobs. And by now, having seen the uncharacteristically mixed coverage of the MacBook Air, Apple must know that it doesn’t have an outright hit on its hands, partly because people knew a fair bit about it in advance.

So the question is: why didn’t Apple threaten to sue the bloggers who published the info about the MacBook Air? And, for that matter, why isn’t it suing the plethora of sites offering information on how to unlock the iPhone? (The answer isn’t that it doesn’t really care whether customers activate with a carrier or not, since it makes hundreds of dollars of extra profit from each customer that activates.)

In my opinion, the only answer for Apple’s softer legal approach lately is that it has learned from the Ciarelli debacle. The whole affair made Apple look like a corporate bully; it had many people wondering whether Apple had taken over the mantle of “dark empire” from Microsoft. I think it’s an excellent example of public pressure placing a guiding hand on the social responsibility of a company.

But with MacBook Air less of a stunning surprise than Jobs’ presumably hoped, will Apple keep the leash on its attack dogs? It’ll be fascinating to watch.

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