Can Apple Stop the Presses?
In the words of the immortal Bugs Bunny: Of course you know this means war!
Since early this week, Ive been deluged by messages from friends across the Mac Web who are hopping mad over Apple Computers moves to lean even more heavily on independent voices in the Mac community.
In an escalation of its long-simmering border war with independent sites focused on Apple and the Mac, the company has apparently prevailed upon IDG World Expo (manager of Macworld Expo/New York) to bar "rumor sites" from press access to this years gathering, which kicks off July 17.
That means that any site the companies deem "features coverage on rumors and speculation" will be disqualified from access to press facilities, according to a response received by at least one applicant.
While even the smallest Mac outlet can presumably afford to pony up the $15 for a general show-floor admission, this bit of symbolism will inconvenience and embarrass many sites that devote themselves full time to this small market.
But thats obviously the idea: Especially since the return of Steve Jobs to Apples helm, the company has taken a uniquely aggressive stance toward information that it cant completely control or that doesnt come from a publication too big or influential for it to mess with.
For the record, Ziff Davis apparently falls into the latter category: I have my press pass, and I know how to use it. I have no doubt that longtime Apple-baiter (and my fellow Ziff columnist) John C. Dvorak will be extended the same courtesy should he deign to request it.
And before I venture any further into this bun fight, Ill also point out that this member of tech publishings "old guard" understands how thoroughly the Web has blurred the line between journalists and enthusiasts. Ive been tangled in this very semantic issue enough times myself to feel some sympathy for any company confused about who qualifies as "media" in this brave new world.
Nevertheless, the "rumor and speculation" yardstick that Apple periodically brandishes is a flawed one indeed, and it clearly has more to do with the Mac makers desire to control every aspect of its coverage than it does with sorting the pros from the amateurs.
Is It Safe?
Ill cite two contretemps Ive had with Apple in recent years (albeit safely under previous PR administrations) to illustrate the bankruptcy of this "rumor and speculation" line.
Example No. 1: On the eve of Apples release of its iMac DV line, an enterprising German site got hold of a couple of marketing photos of the striking, see-through model. Once posted, the images were quickly picked up by Mac enthusiast sites around the globe, much to the consternation of Apple.
I was running MacWEEK.com at the time, and we reported on the online outbreak of DV-mania, along with the strenuous efforts by Apples legal department to quash the images wherever they appeared on the grounds that they comprised copyrighted material. To illustrate the piece, we included a screenshot of a Dutch site that prominently featured the most dramatic of the shots.
Like myriad other sites, MacWEEK.com received a cease-and-desist notice from Apple legal; unlike the others, our lawyers were prepared to back the legitimacy of our reporting about a phenomenon that had reached untold thousands of readers via a score of publicly available venues. We kept the story and the image up and heard no more about it from Cupertino.
Example No. 2: MacWEEK.com began receiving reports from Mac shoppers that iMacs were disappearing from their local CompUSA outlets, a scant year after the retail chain had signed up to promote Apple wares nationwide. On assorted Web sites, readers and some writers began to wonder aloud whether the drought signaled an end to the Apple-CompUSA relationship.
We put in calls to more than 20 CompUSA outlets from Alaska to Florida and verified that the Rev B iMac was indeed in short supply. We also got a resounding affirmation by CompUSAs PR lead that the company remained committed to the Mac.
Having established that the current iMacs were running out but that CompUSA was pledged to continue selling iMacs, we speculated (!) that this anomaly most likely indicated that a Rev C iMac was imminent. When we ran the essentials of the report by Apple PR for comment, the results were immediate and dramatic: The exec we contacted decried our "rumor mongering," suggested that Apples relationship with our parent company would be damaged and promised to cut off our access to any Apple staffers in the future.
Postscript: The Rev C iMac did indeed ship scarcely two weeks later, as we had deduced in a piece that included no unauthorized information and entailed only good, old-fashioned telephone work.
The current Apple edict hasnt touched me, even though these examples (and plenty of passages Ive written more recently on behalf of eWEEK) clearly cast me as an unapologetic trafficker in "rumor and speculation," at least according to the nebulous definition Apple selectively chooses to apply.
However, it has blocked press access to a plethora of independent sites; some of the blacklisted sites (like Scott McCartys GraphicPower) dont even report on pre-release Mac info, but all united in their commitment to providing an enthusiastic, independent view of their favorite computing platform.
Apple owes its survival to the unshakeable support of the Mac community, which has suffered with rare good humor Cupertinos sometimes rocky financial and product performanceas well as its frequent spasms of unrivaled arrogance.
Thanks to that support, the company is more than big enough to endure the scrutiny of those Web sites audacious enough to accept its invitation to "think different."
My advice to Apple: Suck it upand count your blessings.