Secrets, lies, and misbehaviour at Apple

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few hours, you’ll know that Apple is suing Mac news site Think Secret over its recent reports on Q88 (an ultra low-cost Mac) and iWork (a productivity suite). It is claiming that Think Secret actively solicited and encouraged someone to reveal its trade secrets, and then published them.

Dan Gillmor hits the nail on the head when he says:

“I’m fairly sure of this: If the party leaking information to Think Secret had sent it, say, to the San Jose Mercury News or New York Times, and had those publications run the news, Apple wouldn’t be suing them. Both have deep enough pockets to defend themselves.”

Of course they wouldn’t challenge anyone who could defend themselves: they might lose the case. In fact, they almost certainly would lose the case, because they would have to prove that Think Secret had actively solicited the specific information that it published, something that would be nigh-on impossible. As John Gruber points out:

“The easiest way for Think Secret to defend itself would be to respond that it didn’t break the law, it was their sources who broke the law. This has the advantage of being true (other than in the unlikely scenario that Think Secret staff members somehow obtained this information directly from Apple, while under NDA). The disadvantage, however, is that while they would likely win, fighting Apple in court could prove incredibly costly.”

There have been many occasions in the past when larger media organisations have broken stories on Apple’s future products, and received not even a “cease and desist” letter. This is because Apple knows it would lose should it come to to a case in court, whereas it knows that Think Secret cannot afford to let the case come to court. And this is why Gillmor claims that the case “reeks of corporate misbehaviour”.

Of course, Apple has long hated sites that have published information about forthcoming products, branding them “rumour sites”. In fact, Think Secret has never published rumours: it’s an investigative news site that focuses largely on Apple. It doesn’t deal in one-source stories, and doesn’t work off anonymous tips. The tips they recieve are treated as exactly that – tips, not the gospel truth. I personally know of several stories that remain unpublished on Think Secret because Nick dePlume has never been able to get any kind of confirmation of them from other sources.

Cheers or jeers

Those who are cheering Apple on generally make two points. The first is that that Apple suffers financially when its product plans are leaked, as customers stop buying old product in favour of waiting for new. While this might once have had some bite to it, over the past few years Apple has become so good at managing its inventory that it rarely has any old stock to sell. In the case of the old-model iMac, it had nothing to sell for a couple of months before the introduction of the new one. This means that any losses are in the “handful of machines” category, if that.

The second point is that Apple is right to keep its trade secrets away from competitors. But this ignores two counter arguments. The first point to make is that, when it comes to Macs, Apple has no competitors thanks to its killing of the clone program. No longer is there a Power Computing that can rush out a marginally faster machine, or a Umax that could undercut its prices. And Dell et al are simply not interested in a new Mac, no matter how cheap, because they know the majority of people will still choose Windows even if a Mac is priced competitively.

But the other factor that is ignored is that Dell almost certainly knows a whole lot more about Apple’s product plans than Think Secret ever will. These days, many of the components of a Mac are the same as those in a PC, and mostly from the same suppliers. And it’s from component makers that most of the information about a new machine comes from. Of course, only Apple knows what it looks like – and it’s no coincidence that the details published by Think Secret and others are most sketchy on the looks of the new machine.

In fact, Think Secret has done Apple a huge favour. During the week of CES, when Bill Gates was giving a keynote speech and every product maker EXCEPT Apple was hoping for big publicity, Apple has had huge coverage in national newspapers thanks to Think Secret’s story. Apple has managed to get a PR coup without spending a cent. They ought to be sending Think Secret a cheque for $100,000 and offering Nick dePlume a marketing job instead of suing them.

  • http://www.sampletheweb.com/index.php?p=461 Sample the Web

    It’s a PR move…

    Check it:

    Technovia: Secrets, lies, and misbehaviour at Apple

    Apple has had huge coverage in national newspapers thanks to Think Secret’s story. Apple has managed to get a PR coup without spending a cent. They ought to be sending Think Secret a ch…

  • Jeff

    i like the rumor sites. They get me excited about possible new products. They don’t always get them right so apple still pulls a rabbit out here and there. Even when the sites are right the aren’t completely on. The reports also make you think about what kinds of stuff you might want from Apple as well. If Apple doesn’t achieve these desires then I write them and tell them what I want, just like Santa and to me Macworld is just like Xmas. Let the people guess and be happy they care enough. OK Apple. It is all taken with a little more than a grain of salt and some dreams.

  • noname

    Agreed that Apple does benefit but they do have a right to seek enforcement for the confidentiality agreements in place. Your estimation of harm, which they apparently disagree with, does not nullify their right to enforce their agreements.

  • Brian McTavish

    Many very clever people work at Apple, and not just in engineering and design. Am I alone in believing that Cupertino PR and Legal have the wits to anticipate the predictable ramping up of excitement caused by suing a rumour site about obscure, unconfirmed information, the week before MWSF? (And, obviously, they want to put the frighteners on whoever may have broken their NDA…)

  • Chris

    I’d ask Dan Gillmore this:

    Is the New York Times really going to print the kind of thing Think Secret prints?

    Of course not — it’s a ridiculous argument.

    The reason Apple is suing is because of *specific* technical information that was leaked.

    Not hearsay, not speculation — specific info — the stuff from which true corporate espionage

    is made.

    But, why would Apple go after Think Secret?

    Well, because they can.

    To put the fear of god into a few people.

    (And not necessarily only Think Secret)

    For the aforementioned publicity.

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