10.05.08

Not So Secret Apple

The company’s former (13-year-old) nemesis explains how Steve Jobs has suddenly gone soft.

I've had the dubious privilege of being on the frontlines of Apple's war against web leaks.

After my Apple news site, Think Secret, published details of Apple's Mac mini two weeks before the product was officially announced, the company sued me in an attempt to ferret out the leaker. (I was a freshman in college at the time, and the prospect of being sued by one of the world's largest technology companies suddenly made my history final seem a lot less stressful.)


I’ve had the dubious privilege of being on the frontlines of Apple’s war against web leaks.

But lately, there are signs that Apple—long the most secretive company in the tech world—has thrown in the towel on fighting leaks. This year, advance details about a number of Apple products spilled onto the web, including photos of the iPhone 3G and the latest lineup of iPod nanos. In the past, Apple would've fought like hell—including threatening legal action—to get the leaks off the web. But when I spoke to many of the sites that published the images, all of them said that the company's lawyers had been strangely silent.

"There's no doubt that Apple has changed," Jeremy Horwitz, editor in chief of iLounge, told me in an email. "Probably due to the awful PR its prior lawsuits generated, and because cease-and-desist letters only confirm leaks, Apple has wisely stopped going after the people who generate its 'buzz.'"

While most big tech companies would be grateful for the publicity, Apple prefers to let public speculation build to a fever pitch until Steve Jobs, with his usual theatricality, pulls the curtain off of the latest iWhatever at highly choreographed press events. The company's regime of secrecy was engineered by Jobs himself. Before returning to Apple in 1997, he was known for hanging World War II-era posters by his desk proclaiming "Loose Lips Sink Ships," according to Alan Deutschman's biography, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs.

Last year, for instance, a site called 9to5Mac published photos of a new lineup of iPod nanos two weeks before Jobs unveiled them to a crowd of reporters. Before long, the photos were replaced with the glum message: "Sorry. Apple called. Said take 'em down. They are down."

My own site, Think Secret, which I started when I was 13 years old, didn't comply with Apple's demands. So the company sued me and sought to uncover the identities of my sources. (I mounted a First Amendment defense and, shortly before graduating, settled the suit, leaving Apple reporting behind to join The Daily Beast.)

It wasn't the only time Apple has used the courts in an effort to discover who's leaking. In December 2004, the company subpoenaed two sites, AppleInsider and O'Grady's PowerPage, to try to find out who had leaked information to them about a top-secret project. Apple lost on appeal and gave up the fight.

Why has Apple changed tactics? It may have something to do with the fact that Apple leaks have shifted from scrappy fan sites into the mainstream. These days, Mac rumors are regularly published by technology news powerhouses like Engadget, which is owned by AOL, while the spy photos of the new iPod nano this summer were first published on the personal blog of Kevin Rose, the founder of the popular social news web site Digg. "The people who are posting this stuff—a lot of them are affiliated with big companies, or have grown into big companies," says Dave Hamilton, the publisher of iPodObserver, which published advance photos of the iPhone 3G. Perhaps Apple is now seeking to avoid legal fisticuffs with more established companies that are less likely to cave in to its demands.

It can't have helped that Apple's legal efforts to identify leakers have been entirely fruitless. And as Apple expands its roster of partners—the iPhone will be sold in 70 countries by the end of the year—the number of people possessing information about future products will increase.

Or perhaps Apple has belatedly realized that strong-arming fan sites into removing their reports only serves to confirm those reports, which quickly spread to other news outlets. Few outside the Apple faithful were following Think Secret's story about the Mac mini—until Apple sued us, propelling the leak into the pages of The New York Times (the suit "appears to acknowledge the accuracy of the reports," the paper said).

But maybe Apple has also realized that when it threatens, subpoenas, and sues web sites run by some of its biggest fans, its actions create a torrent of negative PR that ultimately tarnishes Apple's brand.

Apple has contended that leaks dampen interest in new products, but if anything they generate a great deal of excitement around its announcements. “All of the rumors are good for Apple in the long run—it keeps a lot of attention on Apple,” says Arnold Kim, the proprietor of MacRumors.com. Apple’s apparent shift marks the end of a self-defeating war.