Crossing The Rubicon: A Look Behind The Scenes At Mac OS Rumors

by , 3:40 PM EDT, July 14th, 2000

[Editors Note: We have added a news story with more information and an amusing picture!]

By now you have probably heard that Mac OS rumors (MOSR) was forced to pull two articles about a new Power Mac "Cube" allegedly due to threats from Apple's legal department. You may have also heard that a Mac writer, Jonathan Apple, sabotaged the Cube story by providing Mac OS Rumors with false details of the Cube in the guise of a possible Non-Disclosure Agreement violator. MOSR published details from Mr. Apple's e-mail purporting to contain leaked details of the Cube without any further confirmation.

After Mac OS Rumors' editor, Ryan Meader, pulled the Cube articles allegedly in deference to an Apple "Notice of Infringement", an irate Mac fan re-posted the censored article at his own home page as a challenge to Apple's lawyers to order him to remove the "improperly disclosed trade secrets." The anonymous poster, calling himself Alan Smithee, believed that if Apple didn't ask him to remove the re-posted MOSR articles this would prove that, in his words, "Ryan Meader is liar". Apple remains entirely mum on the issue.

Let's analyze some of the issues involved in this amusing case of pre-Mac-World skullduggery.

The Fifth Element?

Ryan Meader on July 7th felt he had gathered enough information to go to post with the story, Apple's "Cube" desktop Mac confirmed. The article was the first to unleash the now wildly debated rumor of "a near-perfect cube about 2/3 the size of a modern-day iMac" with six featureless semi-translucent sides and multiprocessor features. In newsgroups and on message boards speculation is running the gamut on just what the cube might be, from talk of a new PowerMac consumer PC, to a new class of professional grade servers, to an Apple branded fully scalable SMP mini-super-computer.

If true, Mac OS Rumors will have scooped the entire planet on what could be biggest headline coming out of Steve Job's Keynote address next week and arguably the most important Macintosh hardware news since the iMac's release in July of 1998.

If true, Apple is preparing a fifth element and it's shaped like a Cube. So much for the four-corner strategy so eloquently expressed last July by Mr.Jobs at MACWORLD.

Jonathan Apple Sows the Seeds of Destruction

Then Jonathan Apple of (yes, it's his real name) waltzes on stage to reveal that many of the latest details about the Cube in Mac OS Rumors' Saturday July 9th update were drawn from an imaginative e-mail penned by Mr. Apple himself, and sent from an AOL account to Ryan Meader the editor of MOSR.

Mr. Apple made up a rubberized bottom, a flip up handle and the codename "Rubicon" among other details and to his amazement, without blinking an eye, Mac OS Rumors had the temerity to publish all his fictive facts.

"Several sources with long and distinguished track records now concur that this design is indeed the planned enclosure for 'Mystic,' the multiprocessor PowerMac G4 based on the UMA-2 motherboard chipset. The unconfirmed codename for the Cube enclosure is 'Rubicon'", claimed MOSR.

The inspiration for the "Rubicon" code name came to Mr. Apple as an allusion to Rubik's cube -- an apt code name, he thought, for MOSR's PowerMac Cube rumor. But the Rubicon is also a small river in between Cisalpine Gaul and the old Roman Republic that Caesar crossed to march on Rome. Ever since then "crossing the Rubicon" has meant going beyond a point of no return.

Thanks to Mr. Apple's crossing of the Rubicon we know that at least one of MOSR, "sources with long and distinguished track records" was a lone, unconfirmed midnight e-mail from an AOL addy Mr. Apple had set up for his ploy.

When the Mac Observer contacted Mr. Apple to confirm that he actually authored this clever test, he remarked, "The funny thing is...I didn't originally intend to fry the kid (Mr. Meader). I just halfheartedly offered the frying pan and he jumped right in."

Mr. Apple's article How you can be a Mac OS Rumors Inside Source reveals, what he calls "desourcing" techniques any good Mac citizen can employ to keep the Mac media, or any media for that matter, honest and hard working.

Mr. Meader of MOSR replied, "As for the MacJunkie story; it's true, in part". Nevertheless, he eloquently defends his Web site, "...anyone who reads Rumors and doesn't view each detail keeping in mind that it is based on hearsay, rumor, and speculation is doing themselves a disservice. There are many better-sounding names for a site than Mac OS Rumors, but none that so clearly state the need for readers to think for themselves."

Alan Smithee's Opus

The next day (July 11th) things really start to get ugly when the pseudonymous Alan Smithee appears on the scene eager to wield the death blow to Mac OS Rumors in the most personal of ways.

Mr. Smithee had retrieved the original Cube articles, now deleted from MOSR's Web site, and was so sure that Ryan Meader made the whole Cube story up he decided to test Meader's claim that Apple's notoriously brutal legal department had squelched the Cube articles. To execute his plan Mr. Smithee re-posted the MOSR cube rumors in their entirety on Apple's own HomePage service. Mr. Smithee challenged Apple's legal eagles: "Note to Apple: If you want me to take down this site, please email me first. I don't want any confusion as to exactly why you want it down." Apple, not surprisingly, did not respond.

An analysis:

Jonathan Apple has proven beyond a doubt that Ryan Meader of Mac OS Rumors is extremely indiscreet when it comes to sorting signal from noise for his rumor site. It might be too much to expect a Mac rumor rag, comparable in credibility to those that grace your grocer's checkout lane, to practice basic journalistic skills such as confirming sources and double checking facts. Nevertheless, many people who visit Mac OS Rumors assume there is a professional staff diligently at work with sources inside Apple, yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr. Apple's bamboozling of Mac OS Rumors with a single late night e-mail is the first publicly documented incident of Mac OS Rumors' lame methodology, but it's not the first time it has happened. Bryan Chaffin, Mac Observer's editor-in-chief recounts an episode in 1997 during the Clone Wars where an annoyed Power Computing executive slipped a bogus hot tip to MOSR that Dell was about to purchase Apple and it became a headline. And others have step forward to claim they have also supplied an eager MOSR with falsified information.

Mr. Smithee believes that Ryan Meader is a total fraud and his re-posting of MOSR censored cube story was designed to prove this, since if Apple censored the story as classified Apple information at one Web site they would do the same to another. As the logic goes, if Apple didn't pull the plug on Alan Smithee's re-post of the Cube story then they must never have ordered MOSR to pull the first Cube story either, thus snaring Mr. Meader in a huge lie and destroying what little is left of MOSR's credibility for once and all time.

But not so fast -- in our correspondence with Mr. Smithee it became clear that he believed from the beginning that "Apple never comments on rumors" so naturally they wouldn't pull his re-post of a censored article. Common sense tells us that for Apple to pull the plug on Mr. Smithee's post would be tantamount to confirming the Cube rumor has some merit. After all, Mr. Smithee disingenuously beseeched Apple on his webpage: "I don't want any confusion as to exactly why you want it down". Apple's legal eagles may be brutal, but they aren't dumb and they never asked him to remove the post.

The Apple "Notice of Infringement" e-mail to MOSR as leaked to appears authentic and Mr. Meader adamantly stands by his story that Apple demanded the articles be pulled. Furthermore, Apple Insiders, another notoriously inaccurate rumor site now has their own plausible sounding Mac Cube rumor going, although the details are radically different than Mac OS Rumors' earlier posts.

The Mac Observer Spin:

There must be a Cube somewhere in the Apple product pipeline. It might or might not be unveiled at MACWORLD. But the Cube's details are completely blurred because fact and fiction blend far too readily at the rumor sites.

In our opinion this is a good thing. Apple designs, builds and brings to market products that are ahead of their time. In the cutthroat multi-billion dollar PC market, where Apple's prescient concepts could bring a million dollar payoff for a corporate spy, Apple's need to control product release dates overrides the mere desire of Mac fans to feed their insatiable curiosity about all things Macintosh. We believe most Mac fans feel the same way.

Jonathan Apple's efforts reveal the sorry state of decline the rumor sites have fallen into since they first emerged during the scary Gil Amelio days when the very future of the Mac community seemed in question. In those desperate days, the rumor sites served to give some hope and consolation to the disenchanted Mac faithful.

Today, Apple is a tight ship with a content, tightlipped workforce developing and marketing well targeted, narrow product lines. Leaks are a very rare commodity and almost never come directly from Cupertino any more. The rumor sites are starved for reliable information.

Alan Smithee's re-post of the Cube story proves nothing, but does illustrate the contempt that many in the Mac community hold for those who attempt to profit solely off non-disclosure agreement violators.

Finally, the sad irony of this whole fiasco is that if the Cube is real, then once again it will have been a much reviled Mac rumor site which first had the temerity to cross the Rubicon with the story, no matter how distorted.