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Apple didn't leak iPhone, and why that matters

A controlled leak? The lost iPhone planted by Apple? You have no idea how Apple PR works —and how, like it or not, Gizmodo finally beat them at their own game.
/ Source: Gizmodo

A controlled leak? The lost iPhone planted by Apple? You have no idea how Apple PR works —and how, like it or not, Gizmodo finally beat them at their own game.

The only way the iPhone 4 was a controlled leak is if Apple has completely upended its PR strategy, which is the envy of the entire business world. The only way it could even work, presuming it were true, would be the destruction of a decade of meticulously laid plans. It would be cashing in all the marketing chips for no clear gain; Does anyone really think the iPhone 4 wouldn't have been a huge story on its own in June?

The lives of other journalists
For the better part of a decade, Apple has been the most secretive consumer company in the world. In an age of blogging vice-presidents and corporate Twitter accounts, Apple communicates with all the garrulousness of a defense contractor.

Ask journalists who have dealt with Apple PR and they'll tell you the same story: Apple is the most annoying company to work with in the business. At best, they're finicky, imposing ridiculous demands for simple requests like borrowing test products; at worst — and most commonly — they just won't respond to requests.

Once you've got the ear of Apple, they're great. Human, considerate, and helpful. But make a mistake or step on their toes and they shut off your drip. That's their system—and it works brilliantly. If you want access to Apple, you can't upset them. And since nothing gets attention like Apple products, it behooves those in the tech enthusiast press to stay in Apple's good graces.

(It bears mentioning that Apple also will remove advertising from outlets that it is unhappy with, as they did with Gizmodo ever since we reported on Steve Jobs' health problems. Fortunately in organizations with a clear wall between edit and advertising — not perfect at Gawker, Gizmodo's parent company, but as good or better as any other outlet I've ever worked for — it isn't a concern for the writing staff.)

Access journalism isn't
The very reason this works for Apple is their legendary secrecy. By keeping their communication channels completely closed, they have leverage over those to whom they give access. I certainly don't think it's enough leverage to guarantee a positive review of a product but it's impossible to argue that "access journalism" has anything but a deleterious effect on the objectivity of journalists.

Journalists will often freak out if you point this out because you are implying they are ethically or psychologically compromised. Too bad. As someone who also gets sneak previews from gadget companies and free gear to test, even if temporarily, I have to cop to it, too. We do our best not to let it influence us, but to deny there is any influence at all is disingenuous.

Access journalism doesn't automatically corrupt the coverage, but it's certainly not free from poison, either.

So why would Apple trade this power away by leaking a prototype phone to Gizmodo? Why would it take a decade of careful grooming of the media and throw it away? And what advantage would it serve? I can't conceive of a single advantage that would come to Apple that isn't an inherent benefit of the system they already have — or had — in place.

Leak as distraction
There had been some that questioned why we ran our story on the same day the HTC Incredible reviews hit the stream. Here's why: Because it was a Monday. Good news day. If you really think Apple cares so much about mucking with the release of yet another Android phone that they'd screw up an iPhone launch you've got a out-of-kilter conception of Apple's fear of Google.

The iPhone is Apple's core product. It's their baby. Why would they leak it to a relatively niche site like Gizmodo? (The best argument for this is simply that of all the tech sites out there, Gizmodo, part of the Gawker tabloid empire, would be the most likely to actually run the story.)

Follow the money
What business advantage would leaking early give Apple? It disinclines customers from buying new iPhones or perhaps even new iPads. I know I'm considering selling my iPad now that I know the next model will surely have a front-facing videocamera.

There is some suspicion that Apple has fed stories to media outlets in the past, like when the Wall Street Journal floated the story about the iPad's cost being "at about $1,000". (No one I've ever spoken to at WSJ has ever confirmed that to be true, but they don't tell me much.) That made some sense, as it set the stage for the real price, which seemed "surprisingly" low.

Sacrificing Gray Powell
While the outing of Apple engineer Gray Powell was inevitable — his name was going to come out anyway, and there is a real if slight chance that foisting him into the public eye might help him keep his job at Apple — I think the way we did it was incredibly tacky. I've said my piece to my co-workers, but I bring it up here because it's important for another reason.

Do you really think Apple would hang one of its engineers out to dry like this? Gray Powell is a real person — hell, he's just a kid — who will now spend the rest of his life or at least the foreseeable future of his career living down one of the biggest gaffes in tech history. Apple may be cruel, but I don't think they're that evil.

Why it's important this wasn't a leak
As far as I can see it, the only antidote to access journalism is to be as ruthless in controlling the story as Apple and other technology companies attempt to be. There's no need to drape this in the flags of journalism and freedom — it's not Watergate — but it's as close as you're going to get in the enthusiast press.

If you think that Gizmodo shouldn't have shown you the iPhone before Apple wanted you to see it, you're accepting that Apple should be the one to control news about its products. That's not an irrational position, but let's be honest about what it means. You can't accuse Gizmodo and the tech press of only being shills for companies then pillory us when we break the cycle.

Presuming this was a leak is limp thinking. Worse, it hands back the control of the story to Apple because some are more comfortable believing Apple's machinations are infallible than that they're a company made up of human beings who try to control the news cycle — and that even the best laid plan can fall apart because of a single human mistake.