Minority Report: Rumour mill killing Apple

Too great expectations

Too great expectations

Long one of Apple's greatest assets, the rumour mill is now a major liability for the Mac maker, says Seb Janacek.

In the backstreet shops and market stalls of Thailand stand rows and rows of shrink-wrapped boxes containing iPhone nanos, a device which was due for launch at January's Macworld conference.

Except Apple never announced the iPhone nano.

It was rumoured, of course. Analysts gave optimistic outlooks on the devices arriving, bloggers and journalists predicted its launch boldly - the web was a twitter with anticipation.

Yet when the keynote rolled around, we got software updates and a new MacBook Pro.

Postmodernists, semioticians and other beard-stroking thinkers used to talk a lot about 'hyperreality', a condition of modern, advanced societies where the mind can no longer distinguish between reality and illusion.

The iPhone nano is a ghost of a machine and the organisation that ordered the manufacturing of the replicas is in possession of a reflection of nothing, a counterfeit simulacrum.

Those Thai back street stores are a nice example of the hyperreal world of Apple, fuelled by speculation and expectation about non-existent things.

In the very first edition of this column way back in 2004, I put forward the idea that one of Apple's greatest assets was the swarm of rumour and speculation that surrounded it constantly.

When I wrote that column, the web was always full of speculation about what was due next off the Cupertino conveyor belt - from headless Macs (true) to G5 PowerBooks (false) to Mac Tablets (false) to an Apple mobile phone (true).

The power of rumour did more for the company than its own marketing division, which itself was famously tight-lipped about products in the pipeline. The feverish interest used to sustain the company during the downtime between product releases and Steve Jobs keynotes.

The focal points for the Apple rumour mill were the company's annual events, before which the tech world held its breath in anticipation of gadget revelation.

Not any more. The number of such Apple gatherings is dwindling. The company last attended the New York Macworld event in 2002 and late last year, it announced the 2009 Macworld would be the last one it attended.

All that remains now of big Apple fests are the June developer event and the gatherings it chooses to hold itself later in the year.

Why is Apple cutting down? The events - once such a boon - have become a rod for its own back. The rumour mill which orbited around them has spun out of control and is now damaging the company by setting expectations way too high ahead of events.

Take the January event. Rather than bask in the collective glory of completing the unibody overhaul of its MacBook Pro range, adding some compelling features to its digital lifestyle software and seeing its office productivity suite come of age, Apple had to face mass disappointment that it didn't release a Mac Tablet with telekinetic controls in a range of chromatic finishes.

In addition to the feverish predictions on forums and blogs, the seeds of expectations for such fantastical devices are often planted by analysts, many of whom have a poor track record of predicting product releases.

In 2008, Apple relaxed its position on removing leaked images from the web, reversing its policy of setting its legal hounds on websites that dared to spoil the surprise.

The company's own senior executives have also become more open and forthcoming with analysts and the press.

Jobs chatted quite openly about the prospects of Blu-ray in Macs, netbooks and iPhone form factors following the launch of new notebooks last year. Similarly, acting CEO Tim Cook further commented on future product directions at the most recent quarterly earnings call.

Perhaps the abandonment of big events, the more relaxed approach on leaked product images and the briefings by senior executives are the company's attempts to get expectation about new kit back under control again.

As for the spectral iPhone nano: in his recent post-earnings chat, acting CEO Tim Cook dismissed the rumours outright.

Speaking to analysts, Cook said: "You know us, we're not going to play in the low-end voice phone business. That's not who we are. That's not why we're here." Apple's goal, he stated was to build the best phone.

Likewise, last October Jobs drew an analogy with legendary baseball player Babe Ruth who only had "one home run... He just kept hitting it over and over again". The iPhone is more likely to evolve through software than hardware.

A pair of definitive statements from Apple's CEO and acting CEO on the prospects for the iPhone nano. Think anyone will believe them?

No chance.