Tech leaks: Separating fact from fiction

The infamous lost iPhone story, in which tech blog Gizmodo paid $5,000 in exchange for a next-generation iPhone that had been left in a bar, was unusual for many reasons, but the primary one is this: It was the first time in recent memory that a yet-to-be announced product from Apple made a public appearance.

As far as tech leaks go, it was a doozy. The appearance was tawdry and filled with intrigue, which made for a lot of fun on both morning TV news and geeky tech blogs.

Apple has since got the phone back, confirming the found/sold phone was indeed an iPhone prototype. Meanwhile, the ethical and legal debate concerning the selling of lost (or stolen?) property—or, in the case of Gizmodo, buying lost or stolen property—continues.

The iPhone tech leak is just part of what’s proving to be a smorgasbord of leaks. Details of so-called top-secret projects seem to be finding their onto the pages of tech websites and newspapers with increasing frequency. Yet it’s important to realize that many of the shiny details are leaked on purpose, and it is just part of a long-standing public relations practice.

Although tech leaks often prove true, some fail to get past the rumor stage. The latter can have a serious adverse effect if a product is introduced without a rumored feature and leads to disappointment. (“Hey, I thought the new iPod Touch was supposed to have a camera!”)

The push for leaks (or scoops, if you prefer) has intensified in recent years as new media sites aggressively try to break stories.

As Nick Denton, founder of Gizmodo’s parent company, Gawker Media, told The New York Times in the wake of the lost iPhone saga, “It’s hardly surprising that Web journalists should be fast, competitive, ruthless, sensationalist—and willing to do most anything for the story,” he said. “It will be messy. And fun!”

Here’s a look at some recent leaks and untamed rumors. Note that most of these secrets originated with the mysterious “people familiar with the situation.”

• The iPad. Several features were widely reported to be part of Apple’s latest gadget but proved false. Those include a front-facing camera for video chats, two 30-pin dock connectors (which would have allowed the iPad to be used vertically or horizontally), a $1,000 price tag and touch technology that would make the keys feel raised and thus easier for typing. According to advance reports, it was supposed to be called the iSlate or iTablet, not the iPad. (And, as my wife said when the iPad’s real name started to gain traction: “Were there any women in those meetings?”) Meanwhile, chatty publishers from The New York Times and McGraw-Hill talked about features they were testing on a coming Apple tablet product. Those leaks—including how the operating system would be tie into the existing iPhone platform—were mostly true.

• The iPod touch. The most recent version was supposed to include a video camera, but instead it was the iPod Nano that got one. Now there’s renewed speculation that a camera-enhanced version of the iPod touch will soon be announced. Well, that’s what Gizmodo thinks, anyway. Previously, the new touch was also said to include a built-in microphone. Combine the built-in mike with a camera and the Skype app, and you would have had a product that pretty much emulated the iPhone (when used in a Wi-Fi zone). This didn’t happen—not yet, at least—but it’s worth noting that third-party microphone attachments and the Skype app make calls on the iPod touch possible.

• The iPhone. So when will new models of the iPhone—ones like the futuristic-looking one that was found in that Redwood City, Calif., bar—arrive at Verizon, anyway? Oh, and wasn’t Verizon supposed to sell the iPad as a prelude to a certain iPhone announcement? That’s still coming, right? Perhaps—or not. Although Apple’s exclusive contract with AT&T runs through 2012, tech website Crunchgear furthered what it admitted was a “rumor” and reported that an ad agency is working on an iPhone campaign for Verizon. Crunchgear concludes this “very nearly confirms a Verizon launch of the iPhone at the end of the summer.” Long story short: Believe it when Steve Jobs says so.

• Facebook. It was widely reported in March (by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and TechCrunch, among others) that Facebook was about to announce a new location feature during its April developers’ conference. This feature was said to be similar to Foursquare and allow Facebook users to note their physical location on the site, and mobile Facebook users could “check-in” to a restaurant, bar or hotel in a manner. When neither happened, The New York Times wrote, “According to people familiar with the new Facebook feature, unauthorized to speak publicly about Facebook’s upcoming projects, the product ‘just wasn’t ready yet.’” So, in other words, they weren’t wrong—Facebook was just behind schedule.

• The iPad rivals. Lately, a lot has been written about the coming wave of iPad-like devices from Dell, Google, HP, Verizon and others. According to a report from The New York Times, Google is developing a slate product of its own. (The story said Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt “told friends at a recent party in Los Angeles about the new device, which would exclusively run the Android operating system. People with direct knowledge of the project—who did not want to be named because they said they were unauthorized to speak publicly about the device—said the company had been experimenting in ‘stealth mode’ with a few publishers to explore delivery of books, magazines and other content on a tablet.”)

There is likely some truth behind this one, since it’s no secret that Google wants to push Android. Meanwhile, Google has announced it is developing a version of Android to run on portable devices besides mobile phones, including netbooks. And earlier this year, Google introduced an Android phone, the Nexus One—which also generated a big, leak- and rumor-filled buzz before it was released.

• Dell. Engadget might consider starting a separate site for all of the Dell leaks they talk about. The tech site recently published stories on what is said to have been dubbed the “Lightning,” a portrait-sliding style Dell smartphone that runs on the soon-to-be-released Windows 7 operating system (do you think both companies could use a big hit?); the “Thunder,” a touch-screen only smartphone that runs on the Android 2.1 OS; a mini version of the previously rumored “Streak” tablet that also runs Android but is more like the iPod touch than a phone; and a bigger tablet called the “Looking Glass.” And then there’s the “Aero,” “Flash” and “Smoke”—all smartphones. If correct, we’re about to experience a flood of new Dell products—and Engadget has the full forecast.

• Nokia N8. What was once the world’s top phone maker has stumbled in the past two years and today Nokia finds itself in desperate need of a hit. Its comeback smartphone is called the N8 and it’s due out … yesterday. Or maybe late summer, who knows. Whenever it finally hits stores, the phone will apparently have a 12-megapixel camera, high-res video capabilities and a touch-screen but no hard keyboard. The phone is tied to a major upgrade of the Symbian operating system (a smartphone platform that has lost a lot of luster in recent years). Nokia officially announced on April 27 that the phone would be available this summer, but later the same day wrote an official blog post titled, “One of our children is missing.”

Apparently, a Russian tech blogger got his hands on what Nokia calls “an early prototype” and wrote an unfavorable review. But at least Nokia knew where to point the blame over this leak: “This particular site openly flaunts its ability to acquire our property. Yes, we have to take a look at ourselves, and we are diligently hunting down the source of these leaks,” Nokia’s official blogger wrote. “Frankly, we pride ourselves on trust at Nokia, and someone has greatly betrayed that.”

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The Losers (PG-13)

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The Losers (PG-13)

Hot on the trail of Kick-Ass’s experiment in vacant violence, The Losers is equally wrongheaded. A team of U.S. Special Forces, led by Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Clay, gets double-crossed and then joins up with a mercenary named Aisha (Zoe Saldana) who insists they seek revenge against CIA baddie Max (Jason Patric). The film’s politics, like this entire effort, are sketchy. Each character seems to have sauntered in from a different movie.