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What the Muses Deign: “Where have the rumors gone, Joe DiMaggio?”

by Porruka,, January 5, 2001

It wasn’t that long ago – less than ten years (of course that’s almost seventy Lycos-years) – when computing professionals, because they were professionals, got treated to the experience known as “the glossy rag”, or the trade weekly. In exchange for demographic information, these trade weeklies laid down the smack for their respective parts of the computer industry: Digital, IBM, Apple (via the Macintosh) and Windows.

They also served two other important functions: matching advertisers with customers and priming the excitement pump with a well-placed (and usually, well-written) rumor column. Many people who’ve been in the industry longer than the time it took to get out of secondary school remember these names: Matco, Cringley, Katt, Knife and more. It was one of the first things read when real decisions were on the line, and the last thing read (and savored) when needs were less pressing. For certain, though: each column was read more than once, above, below and between the lines, by readers looking as much for entertainment as information.

But rumors are evil! People who should know better say so!

The computer industry has changed from those days oh so long ago, back in the 1990s. Companies have grown fonder of manipulating their images; writers more fond of impressions over making an impression; and with the progression of mainstream journalism into the realm of “print it as soon as you hear it”, everybody with an iMac and Netscape Composer can now be a rumorologist.

In this new world, rumor – or more explicitly, exposure of corporate plans before public announcement – is considered by many to be at worst vicious sabotage, and at best an annoyance to be eliminated. At times, who can blame the rumored? Developing a strategy (not to mention an actual product) takes time, money, resources and effort. Stripping the veil prematurely by simple exposition lacks both understanding and tact. “But,” you say, “Doesn’t MacEdition do rumors” Of course we do. “Then,” you ask, “Are you just taking potshots at your competitors?” Of course not.

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine

Can rumors hurt a company? Absolutely. Rumors about financial health whispered in the right ears can erode investor confidence. Rumors about staff changes (executive departure, layoffs) can destroy employee morale. Rumors of unannounced products can impact current sales. Yes, even that reason, the one that Apple has chosen to be a standard bearer in it’s fight against rumors, has truth to it. Apple, as much as any other company, has decided it has the sole right to determine what you think about the company and its products, and its aggressive stance on rumors and rumormongers is designed to enforce that Cone of Silence, preventing any communication not sanctioned by the mothership.

Does Apple have a right to do this? Yes, even some of the less pleasant methods Apple has reportedly employed are perfectly within its rights. Much of the information that previously fed the rumor mills is proprietary, and without context, may cause Apple harm or confusion in the marketplace and developer community if released. But attempting to plug all the leaks is not the only way, nor necessarily the best way, for Apple to protect the assets it claims to be covering.

Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away

Why, as a prelude to Macworld SF 2001, am I writing about rumors? For one thing, there are plenty of them to go around, even with Apple’s attempts to silence them. The problem is quality. In the past, a sense of excitement surrounded the Expo. There was an “it’s almost Christmas and the packages rattle just enough” atmosphere. The “reliable rumors” built anticipation while still leaving the packages wrapped. You ask for hints – is it animal, mineral, vegetable, or item? – so you don’t buy something similar to it right before the big day. Of course, you’re not likely to be shopping too much then anyway, since you’re waiting to see what comes out of the box.

Apple expos are much the same way, except the new Apple prefers to not only keep its customers from rattling the boxes, but to hide them altogether, leaving the tree bare until there’s “just one more thing...” to announce. Then Apple wonders why there’s such a long return line the day after.

Wearing the inside out

Can a company succeed without being covered by the rumor beat? Absolutely. Can Apple survive without the same? Quite likely, but with Apple being Apple, the level of that success may be lower for the loss of the mongering. The Apple community is unlike the vast majority of product owner groups in the world. However, it is quite like other computing groups, possessing the desire to know what’s coming up and the desire to plan purchases based around factors other than just impulse, other than what Apple springs on the public at an event.

Apple needs rumors. But not just any rumors; it needs quality rumors. It needs to seed the community with just enough information to raise the excitement level legitimately. It needs to combat the problems of production scheduling and inventory control, and the rumor is a tool that may help. Few people will hold off buying a machine if the latest rumored machine doesn’t have something they have to have (perceived or otherwise). In fact, a well-informed community may just be easier to sell older product into with fewer overall markdowns if they know that there’s not a specific reason to wait for new hardware.

That, though, would require Apple to work with the press, or at least not actively work against them. That would require the press to exercise restraint and judgement rather than simply slapping up whatever e-mail comes across the wire. That would require respect, on both sides of the fence.

Apple pretends to be able to manipulate its image. Perhaps that’s true, if the image Apple wants is “difficult to work with, unpredictable and fickle” rather than “exciting, innovative and responsive to the markets.” Apple doesn’t have to open the corporate vaults and let reporters waltz in. However, letting some well-placed information out once in a while might go a long way toward repairing the state of affairs between Apple and its customers.

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