I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
ZOMG! What an uproar! Readers of The Mac Observer and other Apple fans have been almost universal in their condemnation of Gizmodo for having paid cash money for a prototype iPhone 4G that turned up in a San Jose bar last week, and even more disturbingly, many people seem to be salivating at the idea that someone could face criminal charges over the incident.
I have been a little dismayed at this former and troubled by the latter. For one thing, as long-time TMO curmudgeon Bosco (A.K.A Brad Hutchings) pointed out, what Gizmodo and the prototype’s finder are guilty of most in the eyes of those seemingly most hungry for blood is spilling Apple’s secrets (and in this case the secret had already been spilled when the finder sent photos of the device to Engadget, which promptly posted them).
Now, I love Apple’s products, and I absolutely believe no other company on the planet has the ability to make computing devices as well as Apple can; but in the end, Apple is still just a corporation. In the grand scheme of things, the loss of one prototype device and publication of information pertaining to that prototype is just not the end of the world, and I think it would behoove all of us to remember that.
There’s another very salient aspect to this situation that I think is even more important, however, and this strikes to the heart of why I can make a living writing about Apple and why you, gentle reader, come to TMO, Gizmodo, Engadget, and the host of other Mac-related blogs on the Internet to read about the company.
Ready? Here it comes: Apple works very hard to keep its product plans secret. This creates heightened interest in the company and results in millions, if not tens of millions of dollars worth of free press for the company in virtually every new product cycle.
The one begets the other, and if you take away the secrecy, much of the interest and speculation would dissipate.
I know, that’s rather obvious, but it’s the other half of the coin that many of us forget: Apple’s secrecy also generates interest, motive, and reward for other people to uncover those secrets.
I’m going to repeat that, with a few extra words and some italics thrown in for good measure. The same secrecy that leads to free press and Apple media events that are attended by sometimes hundreds of journalists from around the world also generates interest, motive, and reward for other people to uncover those secrets.
This is part and parcel of the cycle, and Apple simply can’t have the free press coverage without also getting the rumormongers who try to spoil the company’s well-laid plans.
Indeed, I’ve long felt that in many product cycles the rumormongers’ efforts result in even more free mainstream press. Today, the mainstream press often sources content directly from the Mac Web, and many major newspapers and media outlets follow many Mac sites that once upon a time were far too niche for them to notice.
This was part of why I was so tense about Apple trying to use the legal system to ferret out Think Secret’s sources several years ago, an effort that thankfully went nowhere. Why risk damaging press freedoms when what Think Secret did was merely an inevitable side effect of Apple’s business model (use secrecy to generate free press and public anticipation)?
There are no such thorny and broad issues at stake with the Gizmodo debacle, however. While it’s vaguely possible that some legal statute pertaining to the press would offer Gizmodo some amount of protection in the event that Apple or a District Attorney actually press charges, I don’t think any press freedoms will be in jeopardy if there’s a conviction.
And please note that it’s not that I really support what Gizmodo did. Paying for property you know belongs to someone else (in this case, a corporation) is kind of a bottom-feeder thing to do (I respect that the site promptly returned it to Apple when asked), but I watched Gizmodo’s video, and I’m willing to bet that almost all of those so ready to burn the magazine at the stake did, too.
There’s also the questionable topic of paying for a story. David Carr wrote an excellent piece for The New York Times examining the issue, including the slippery slope that such practices could lead to. For its part, Gizmodo head honcho Nick Denton (the CEO of parent company Gawker Media) defended the concept by noting that his company was up front and open about it, and didn’t try to hide anything.
Still, paying for leaked information or lost prototypes is something I personally consider to be less-than-savory, but I accept the reality that it’s part of the marketplace and the inevitability that such practices will occur, as noted above.
Even here, our own hands aren’t squeaky clean. We’ve published leaked photos of Apple-related prototypes, though we’ve never paid for them, and we’ve been the source of leaked stories. Again, this is all a part of Apple’s carefully cultivated ecosystem.
I should also note, that it’s not unique to Apple or the computer market. As TMO president Dave Hamilton noted in our staff meeting this morning, car magazines and trade journals have for decades published spy photos of prototype cars, and I’ll add that long before MacWeek was dumpster diving in Cupertino, car magazines were dumpster diving in Detroit.
Show me an industry with secrecy, and I’ll show you a trade press trying to uncover those secrets.
Which brings me to something I should have already said: This column is not intended to bitch about Apple pressing charges (should the company even do so). Instead, I’m shaking my finger at all those so keen to condemn Gizmodo for its actions after the fact.
We’re all interested in what Apple does, and that’s because Apple works so hard to keep what it’s going to do a secret. It’s an infinite loop.
[Update: As I was finishing this piece, TMO reported that the police had seized the computer of the Gizmodo employee that handled the iPhone prototype story.]