The sad state of Apple rumors

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It’s a weird time for those of us who’ve followed Apple rumors for years. (And I'm not the only one who has noticed.) At the risk of sounding like your prototypical hipster, today’s rumors just aren’t as good as they used to be. The devices that we hear whispers about now—a smartwatch, a television, a cheaper iPhone—seem lackluster compared to the rumored products of days past—products that, when they actually appeared, changed entire industries.

Yes, we do seem to be in a lull—but I’m here to tell you that that’s OK. And, since Macworld has a minimum word limit, I’ll even tell you why.

There were three canonical Apple devices that were foretold in prophecy: the phone, the tablet, and the set-top box. These three formed a trinity of promise that dates back to a bygone age—more than 15 years ago now. But though the tales of yore might seem meatier than the meager crumbs we get today, you have to remember that even those epic rumors weren’t built in a day.

The set-top box

Back in the late 1990s, there was a rumor site called Apple Recon, run by Robert Morgan. (There’s not much of it left now.) Much of his writing focused on the “convergence” between computers and entertainment devices. He frequently claimed that Apple was working on a set-top box, and that Apple was coming to your living room. Crazy, huh?

Apple was indeed working on a set-top box back in the 1990s but nothing really came of it. At the time, Morgan’s missives seemed, if not crazy, at least off the mark. It wouldn’t be until 2006 that the company announced the Apple TV, then called the iTV. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how that device would have worked using late 1990s technology, unless you felt like wiring your house for ethernet. But just as time heals all wounds, it also makes all Apple rumors possible.

The phone

Rumors of a new Apple PDA (remember PDAs?) kicked off right around the time Steve Jobs killed the Newton, but the earliest mainstream reference to the iPhone was a piece by John Markoff in The New York Times back in 2002.

Mr. Sculley’s great tumble came after he staked his and Apple’s reputation on the ill-fated Newton hand-held computer—an ambitious product based on handwriting-recognition technology that was ahead of its time. And now come signs that Mr. Jobs means to take Apple back to the land of the handhelds, but this time with a device that would combine elements of a cellphone and a Palm-like personal digital assistant.

Mr. Jobs and Apple decline to confirm those plans. But industry analysts see evidence that Apple is contemplating what inside the company is being called an ”iPhone.”

We’d have another five years to stoke that rumor fire, but despite that long gestation period, there were still people arguing—just months before its unveiling at Macworld Expo 2007—that an Apple phone would never come to be: It was too difficult, the market was too mature, Apple had nothing to offer. No matter how good a rumor is, it’s never universally hailed.

The tablet

This one is pretty much all Steve Jobs’s fault: Shortly after Jobs killed the Newton in 1998, he said Apple would ship a replacement device within a year. For those of you who are not students of Apple history, that, er, didn’t actually happen. In fact, it ended up being more like 12 years, so he was only off by 1100 percent. During that decade-plus, people had plenty of time to obsess over Apple tablet rumors—and with good reason, since Apple was actually working on just that. But the technology behind it didn’t see the light of day until the iPhone was released.

The “iPad” moniker itself emerged after the release of the iPod, because people are brilliant and know how to change vowels (or they watch Star Trek and can put an “i” in front of something). Initially, the rumor’s focus was on running the full-fledged Mac OS on a tablet; later, the idea briefly transmogrified into a netbook, during what we can only assume was a bout of mass hysteria. But when the real iPad finally arrived, it changed the landscape of the entire computer industry. So, some things are worth waiting for.

The unrumored

But that was that: the holy trinity of Apple rumors for a whole decade. Sure was a long time for people to hang their hopes on unicorns and pixie dust. But, then again, that’s kind of what we do.

But I think that, to a certain degree, we’ve idolized these rumors in retrospect. Not necessarily because they seemed like sure-fire winners at the time, but because we followed them for so long. Now that decade of those iconic Apple rumors is over. So, is this the end? Are we destined to nothing more than lousy rumors and ho-hum product announcements?

Well, if you were paying attention, you might have noticed that I left out one highly successful Apple product of the 2000s, a device that wasn’t part of the rumor trinity: the iPod. The iPod came out in October of 2001 and was something of a surprise to everybody. Rumors of an Apple digital music player had only sprung up about a week before it was unveiled. Before any of those storied Apple rumors above came to fruition, we got a product that wasn’t rumored at all. And, I don’t know if you noticed, but the iPod turned out pretty OK.

So, while we might be flying blind right now, don’t assume that means Apple has nothing planned. And don’t assume that what is planned is anything you’ve heard as a rumor. Before the iPod came out, nobody had any idea what it was. Before the iPhone came out, no one had any idea what it would look like, let alone how transformative it would be. A year before the iPad came out, people were speculating about an Apple netbook, for crying out loud.

On the company's most recent conference call with analysts, Tim Cook said that the company has some great products on tap for this fall. That might seem like a long time for us to poke at paltry speculation, but don’t let the current sad state of rumormongering get you down. The magic can still happen without priming the pump for years.

And, remember: If you knew exactly what was going to happen, it wouldn’t be magic.

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