Eric Slivka always gets anxious the day of an Apple event. Like a nervous date on prom night, the 38-year-old editor of MacRumors.com gets ready a few hours too early. He wakes up in the morning, ensures the site is updated with any last-minute leaks, and preps the snacks and beverages he’ll need while he’s watching the event’s live stream. Then, he waits.
“When it gets to be an hour or so before the event, I get up and start pacing around,” he said in an interview. “I’ve kind of run out of things that I need to do.”
At that point, there is nothing else Slivka can do but wait, because it’s nearly impossible to be more ready. Slivka has been following the Apple product cycle for about 15 years. While researching which computer to buy in his early 20s, he stumbled upon the Mac Rumors forum. He started commenting, then guest-posting, and then, in 2009, he was hired as the site’s first full-time staff member. Today, he is an unofficial historian of the inscrutable Apple rumor.
You’ve definitely heard an Apple rumor before. Like, maybe there won’t be a headphone jack on the next iPhone? Or that iTunes is getting a major overhaul. Or that Craig Federighi has been seen hotboxing Apple cars on Apple’s forthcoming spaceshipesque Cupertino campus. (I made that one up. That’s allowed, you see, because it’s a rumor.) Today, most every media company — from The New York Times to BGR — traffics in leaked information about upcoming Apple products. They come from “unnamed,” “well-placed,” “reliable” sources who are “familiar with the company’s thinking,” or a blurry factory photo of unknown origin. And rest assured, prior to an Apple event, they will hit a fever pitch. Rumors are every bit as important to piquing interest in the company as its Taylor Swift commercials.
How does a piece of information from one of the world’s most secretive companies materialize online? It’s a much more opaque process than you might expect. A nugget of information about an unreleased Apple product usually originates in one of four places: an analyst theorizing about what’s next, a discovery within the latest beta operating system’s code, an inside source from the company or a supplier, or a leaked photo from the floor of the Taiwanese Foxconn factory, Apple’s main iPhone manufacturer.
Analyst’s theories tend to be the least reliable because they’re just well-informed speculators. An analyst, for those who don’t often have the pleasure of tuning in to Mad Money w/ Jim Cramer, is a person employed by an investment company to scrutinize the balance sheets of major corporations and offer insight into where they’re headed and whether that’ll be profitable. Sort of like the finance industry version of a talking head on VH1’s I Love the ’90s, except filthy rich. You can catch the most prominent Apple analysts — including Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster, Morgan Stanley’s Katy Huberty, and Bernstein’s Toni Sacconaghi — on the end of the company’s quarterly earnings calls; they’re usually the ones that CEO Tim Cook or Chief Financial Officer Luca Maestri call on for questions.
In the vacuum of the 24-hour cable news, analysts are often asked to fill in the blanks with whatever they can think up. And that’s when things get outlandish. For instance, Munster, who’s considered to be one of the most prominent Apple analysts in the business, has publicly predicted Apple would release an actual television set since at least 2012. But after his projected 2016 release date became unrealistic, he pivoted to predicting an Apple car instead. (These kind of inconsistencies, for what it’s worth, have earned him a reputation on tech blogs: “If you’ve spent any time around tech journalists in the last decade, you’ll notice that merely uttering the word ‘Gene’ around them will elicit an involuntary shudder,” the Verge wrote in March.)
“This Apple thing has kind of made analysts like rock stars,” Mikey Campbell, a senior editor who has been fielding rumors at the blog AppleInsider for five years, told me. “They entered the industry to crunch numbers and analyze companies, but they’re often finding themselves on big network shows, ABC, CNN, stuff like that, talking about Apple. The more juicy that their analysis or research reports are, the more chance that they’ll have of getting on those shows.”
The Source Code
In contrast to analysts, code-based discoveries are pretty limited in imagination, and are somewhat unavoidable on Apple’s part. It usually happens like this: Apple releases the beta version of its latest operating system to its army of independent app store developers (the same people who have, over the years, brought us more than 5 million iOS apps). Those developers examine the code behind the latest updates for their own business interests. They want to know if Apple, a company that’s very controlling of its ecosystem, has opened up certain capabilities. (For instance, with the release of iOS 8 the company allowed third-party developers to access the iPhone’s keyboard, and a medley of keyboard apps that were previously available only on Android followed.) Searching around, sometimes they’ll find a cryptic line of code that indicates a change that Apple hasn’t yet been announced.
In the rumor cycle leading up to the June 13 kickoff of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, for instance, that cryptic line of code was “Headphones.have.%sinput.NO,” which indicated that perhaps there would be no headphone jack on the latest iPhone 7. In January, Twitter user Chase Fromm tweeted about this discovery in the iOS 9.3 beta 1.1 software release, and sites such as Cult of Mac picked it up. Since then, more than 300,000 people have signed a petition to protest Apple’s (rumored) decision to remove a headphone jack from the (rumored) iPhone 7. Fromm’s Twitter account was also suspended.
Apple takes great measures to ensure secrecy within its product-development process, measures that start as early as its hiring practice, when employees are hired into dummy roles to avoid speculation from the press. “They wouldn’t tell me what it was,” a former Apple engineer told Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky for his 2012 book Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired — and Secretive — Company Really Works. “I knew it was related to the iPod, but not what the job was.” After that, information about upcoming products is offered on a need-to-know basis, and “lockdown rooms” are constructed to ensure no one goes snooping. So, having a reliable Apple source is the journalistic equivalent of catching the Golden Snitch in Quidditch. Apple’s public relations team participates in the media cycle as well, sometimes offering deep background to journalists to challenge negative press or ensure fans aren’t disappointed.
“You definitely feel like there’s occasionally something that gets leaked to a mainstream news outlet to temper expectations about what’s coming, what you should be expecting,” Slivka said.
For the most part, journalists with good sources and healthy relationships with Apple’s PR team are well-placed at major news outlets, including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and BuzzFeed. But there are exceptions. Mark Gurman, a reporter who got his start at the blog 9to5mac in 2010, is considered one of the most reliable rumors reporters in the business, breaking news of everything from the first photos of the iPhone 5, to an extensive report on how Apple’s stealthy communications department functions. The media world has taken note: Bloomberg Business recently hired the “22-year-old scoop machine.”
Though information about the company’s bigger-picture plans and software updates likely come from sources in the U.S., most rumors about Apple’s actual hardware originate in Chinese publications. Digitimes, a Taiwan-based English-language site that provides news about Asia’s tech industry, is often a reliable source because of its proximity to suppliers who manufacture parts for iPhones and other Apple products. However, as MacRumors warns on its website’s source index, the outlet “receives a flood of data from the Asian supply chain, some of which it claims pertains to prototypes or test products that never make it to market or change significantly before launch, skewing its accuracy.” (In other words, hedge your bets). Other Asian sites that are fed information include the Japanese site Mac Otakara and the Chinese-language site Wei Feng. According to Campbell, Apple’s sprawling manufacturing operation in China has made it much more difficult for the company to keep information from getting out.
“The rumor mill really ramped up when Chinese manufacturing plants started hiring hundreds of thousands of people,” Campbell said. “Those are all just potential weak links in the chain. You can try to keep security tight, but there’s bound to be a few motivated people who want to get this information out.”
The Blurry Photo
China is also the source of one of the most infamous, and increasingly frequent, sources of information in the Apple Rumor machine: the sketchy photo of a phone part. These, according to Slivka, “come from all sorts of directions.” Some will pop up on Chinese social media networks like Weibo, and are then picked up on the aforementioned Asian news outlets. Others come straight to the tip line that rumor blogs advertise on their homepages. Because 3-D mapping and Photoshop have made it much easier to create a convincing image, evaluating the legitimacy of a part is now a learned skill, like detecting flavor notes in fine wines.
“It probably took about a year before I became proficient at spotting the B.S. from what could be considered real,” Campbell said. “It’s worse if you’re getting into the industry now, everything is just flooded with fakes and people trying to generate click-bait.”
When it comes to evaluating a photo, Apple rumor bloggers typically run through a list of questions: Does this match up with the guts of past iPhones or iPads? Where does this fit into Apple’s typical release schedule for the product in question? What do we know about the suppliers Apple is working with? Has anyone else sent in a similar tip? Who is this person, and why would they risk their job to send this to me?
This vetting process becomes harder to do as an event approaches — tips flood writers’ inboxes sometimes hours before Cook steps onstage — and they have less time to corroborate information.
As you might expect, that’s how complete hoaxes can slip through the cracks. In 2012, a Swedish production company named Day4 created a rendering of an asymmetrical screw, pasted it in an email that suggested it was designed to keep Apple users from opening their products, and sent it to itself. Then it screenshotted the email, and posted the image to Reddit with the caption, “A friend took a photo a while ago at that fruit company, they are obviously even creating their own screws.” Less than 12 hours later, the rumor was posted on Cult of Mac, and quickly spreading to sites including MacWorld, Yahoo, and Wired. Though each site presented the screw with skepticism, Day4 noted that, on social media, people spoke about the image “like it’s a truth. Critical thinking vaporized.”
According to Slivka, however, running stories that spark the imagination of readers is a necessary part of the business, so long as they’re presented as conversation starters, not truth.
“Whether you publish the rumor or not depends on how newsworthy you think the discussion is,” Slivka said. “There are some things that you think are probably true that we end up not publishing because they’re boring. Other things that are fairly sketchy — that are probably not true — we end up publishing anyway, and frame a discussion around that to spark conversation from commenters about what might be happening.”
The outlandish rumor as conversation starter is where the fantastical product rendering comes into play. Produced by the passionate followers of Apple’s famed design aesthetic, the fan art often depicts interpretations of current leaks or even flat-out imaginary products. Some, like one video posted by the YouTube account ConceptsiPhone, are an immediate hit. The clip, which depicts an iPhone with two screens — one on its face and one on its side — has been watched more than 38 million times. Others, like a recent “exclusive” rendering of the Apple car featured in a Motor Trend cover story, were widely mocked by tech journalists online (for good reason).
In part, there’s a push from the media to indulge in Apple fantasy. Adam Benton, a UK-based designer who has created renderings for Apple publications since 2003, said publications often ask him to push his illustrations beyond what they expect Apple will release. His creations have ranged from desks designed to fit all of a person’s Apple hardware to thin, bendable, Minority Report-style screens. Though he’s careful to follow the rules about curvature, materials, and sizing that have been established by Apple chief design officer Jony Ive, Benton prefers to imagine something he knows probably won’t appear onstage in September. It’s been that way since he sat down with the editors of UK’s MacFormat magazine to imagine a new iMac in the early aughts.
“They knew it would obviously be beyond the scope of what would actually happen, but they wanted something that was a bit of a look ahead,” he said in an interview. “It went up on the internet the same day as the magazine came out, and it kind of just went viral.”
For an audience as insatiable as the cult of Apple, no sliver of information is too outlandish.