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Truth Is in the iMac of the Beholder

By Charles Haddad Oh, the horror. Several e-zines, which represent the vox populi of the Mac community, dared to speculate about what Apple would unveil at this week's MacWorld trade show in New York. It was an offense that brought down the heavy hand of the MacWorld publicity police. They banned Scott McCarty, editor of GraphicPower, and several other e-scribes from the show.

The ban was about as effective as trying to douse a fire with oil. No sooner were the e-zine publishers kicked out than they threw up the mother of all rumor sites. Called RumorTracker, it aggregated MacWorld speculation into one convenient location. The site invited readers to rate the quality of rumors from 1 to 10, with the highest-rated ones rising to the top of the site's list. It proved a popular gimmick, drawing 8,000 daily visitors on average -- all on word of mouth. Now, that's the kind of stunt that should turn Apple's publicists green with envy.

POINTLESS BAN. Nor were the banned ones deterred from entering the show. Many of them simply bought a $15 pass to the exhibit floor and then snuck into the press facilities. Several of them attended press conferences. The only ones who seemed embarrassed were MacWorld's publicists.

Are the publicists really the ones who should be red-faced? Speculation was rife that Apple was behind the rumor-mongers' banning. Apple denies this, but frankly, it has little credibility on the issue. It has a long a history of trying to control the press. In the '90s, Apple even kept a Nixon-esque blacklist of reporters who dared to portray its decisions in a less-than-favorable light.

Apple's obsession with controlling its spin has only grown since the return of Steve Jobs. Under his reign, Apple has demanded that sites such as AppleInsider, which have consistently broken news about coming product releases, remove the information.

WHOSE FAULT? Rumor-mongering was an especially sore subject with Jobs at this year's New York MacWorld. Last year, various e-zines whipped new-product expectations into a frenzy. They swore Apple would release a flat-screen iMac and a handheld device capable of playing video. Neither product debuted, and attendees felt jilted.

They blamed Apple -- not the e-zines. Apple did eventually release the flat-screen iMac -- but six months later, at MacWorld San Francisco. As for a handheld computer, it's anyone's guess if -- or when -- Apple will release one. Until then, the rumor mill will continue to grind out scenarios, however plausible or unlikely they may be.

Clearly, Apple has had enough. At last year's MacWorld Tokyo, held shortly after its counterpart in New York, Jobs & Co. said there would be no new product releases. Oh really? Apple did indeed make an announcement -- just a little while later at the same expo. It was a big one, too -- a new version of the iPod. Such blatant misguidance only eggs on rumor-mongers.

THE REAL PROBLEM. Really, though, Apple should consider all this speculative fervor a blessing rather than a curse. Sure, it can be a pain in the hard drive. But the alternative would be even worse. After all, speculation is a barometer of popular interest. What if nobody cared enough about the outfit to gossip about it? That's when I'd really start to worry about Apple.

Now, let me engage in a little groundless speculation of my own. I hear Apple is working on a digital wand called iTruth. Wave it over a speculative story, and iTruth parses fact from fiction. Ditto for Apple press releases. Which, I suspect, is why iTruth is one product Apple will never release. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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