How to decipher tech rumors, the nerd equivalent of celebrity gossip

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 7:29 PM

Here's a hot tip: A tech company will introduce a breakthrough new gadget soon. This device will be magical, possibly even revolutionary. It will make everything you've seen before in that category look obsolete.

And you're reading about it here first!

I could go on, but you get the gist. The tech rumor has become a minor art form in its own right, with two particular subjects, the Verizon iPhone and the iPad 2 that Apple just introduced, eating up a disproportionate share of this year's headlines. Other popular topics have included the features of upcoming Android smartphones and tablets and subscription rates for 4G mobile-broadband services.

(Most desktop and laptop computers don't attract such fevered speculation, but that's an issue for another column.)

All those stories can be great fun to read, but they might not be terribly informative. (You might see some of those reports mentioned on The Post's site.) In that respect, they're a nerd equivalent of celebrity gossip.

Because tech rumors can also skew your buying decisions, overindulging in them can be more like day trading in the stock market: a distracting and ultimately unprofitable endeavor.

To get any value from such stories, you need to know what to ignore.

It's easier to point to the unhelpful cues. Some are outright hoaxes: The nicer an alleged illustration of an upcoming gadget looks, the higher the odds that somebody whipped up the picture in Photoshop.

The second-least reliable rumors cite patent filings and domain-name registrations as evidence. Large tech companies treat both as defensive measures; you patent any possible innovation and register any relevant domain name before a competitor can.

A story citing a feature found in an unreleased build of a future software release might seem better grounded. It often isn't: Developers add code to support an upcoming capability years and multiple versions before they plan to ship it, and sometimes they never do.

Sources from outside the company always deserve skepticism. Employees of companies that make components of upcoming gadgets or accessories to go with them might want to give others a sneak peek at what's coming, or they might just be trying to drum up business. Maybe they're just passing on off-base, in-house gossip.

I'm especially doubtful of forecasts from industry analysts. They had Apple bringing the iPhone to Verizon years before it happened. At other times, over-eager news sites turn an analyst's carefully considered "should" (as in, this company would be well advised to do this or that) into a unqualified "will."

What kinds of rumors are worth trusting?

On exceedingly rare occasions, prototype hardware does leak - most infamously when an Apple engineer lost a test version of the iPhone 4 at a bar that the gadget-news site Gizmodo then bought from the finder. Usually, you'll get no such help.

Looking at the calendar might clear things up, though. Computer manufacturers always refresh their laptop lineups in time for back-to-school shopping. Apple ships a new iPhone every June or July and a new set of iPods every September. Other smartphone vendors cluster their releases around major wireless-industry conventions: Mobile World Congress in February and CTIA in March and October.

Government regulatory agencies can also be useful sources. Wireless devices have to pass testing by the Federal Communications Commission, although manufacturers can ask the FCC to keep upcoming products confidential.

Retailers might have no choice but to telegraph an upcoming product's arrival, either by the old one going out of stock or information about a new item appearing in their internal databases. But don't expect an individual sales rep to be clued into this.

You can also save time by focusing on rumors about major technological shifts. An upgrade to a new processor or a faster graphics system isn't worth fussing about in most cases, but a vendor adopting a new standard or dropping an old one is.

It's also smart to focus on individual sites that have developed a specialty in one category or another of rumor. For example, Boy Genius Report covers smartphones, and AppleInsider focuses on . . . well, you can guess that. And if you're sick of the entire genre, please bookmark Crazy Apple Rumors.

Or you can step off the tech-rumor treadmill. Here's how: Not long after you've bought a shiny new gadget, set out some impossible requirements for its replacement - say, that it have double the speed, twice the camera resolution, four times the capacity and so on. However demanding you are, the industry will probably satisfy your shopping list eventually. And then upgrading can feel more like winning and less like knuckling under.

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