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Entelligence: Conspiracy theory, part one

Entelligence: Conspiracy theory, part one
Michael Gartenberg
Michael Gartenberg|August 14, 2010 8:00 PM
Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

We've all heard the great conspiracy theories of our time. President Kennedy was killed by more than one gunman. The moon landing was hoax, a drama secretly recorded on a stage set somewhere in Atlanta or Texas. More recently, the attacks on the World Trade Center were really perpetrated by the US, not Islamic terrorists. There are far more, I assure you. What's funny is that in the last few years, our industry has spun off a number of conspiracy theories worthy of being made into a movie. Apple, Microsoft, RIM, HP, Palm -- you name it, and there's a story being told. Of course, with most of these stories it's never direct from the source. It's people, who know of people, who knew someone, who heard from a friend that... something happened. As with all good tales, there's always someone who will believe.

Oliver Stone, are you listening? Here are my five favorite tech conspiracies.

Security firms cause viruses - One of my favorites. The theory is if security firms actually eradicated viruses with their tools, there would be no need for them to stay in business. Therefore, instead of just creating the anti-virus and malware software, they actually create the malevolent code in order to profit on both sides of the equation. Then again, there are clearly plenty of malevolent code writers out there who seem intent on wreaking havoc with user systems for fun and or profit. It's hard to see why security firms would need to create additional nasty code.

Microsoft worked to create products that would break competitor's products - You'll hear of the t-shirts allegedly worn on campus that said "the job's not done until Borland won't run." Certainly there can be compatibility issues with older products running on new code, but even at the height of their rivalry, it's hard to believe that Microsoft would have targeted a single competitor and done it so openly and brazenly.

Apple's lost iPhone was an intentional PR stunt - According to popular legend, the whole business of Apple losing the iPhone 4 prototype in a bar and all subsequent events were no accident, much less theft. Rather, it was clearly a brilliantly designed press move designed to generate publicity for Apple. Aside from the absurd timing needed to make this work, does Apple need to resort to stunts for press coverage? The company has proven it can get whatever press coverage it desires, even on very short notice. No need for complex schemes that look like something Wyle E. Coyote would invent if he were in marketing.

Apple knew all along there were antenna issues with the iPhone and that's why they released the bumper accessory at launch. Of course, it might also have to do with getting an early place in the market for an accessory that many consumers want and happens to carry a huge markup. At $29 a pop, Apple has not missed exactly how much margin there is on a piece of plastic or rubber and given the low cost to produce, it's not surprising they now offer them for free to iPhone 4 customers.

The threat to ban Blackberry use in the UAE and Saudi is a RIM stunt - How better to show off how secure your products are than to get a few countries to ban them because they're "too secure" for their tastes? Even though it seems that RIM's now reached a deal with Saudi Arabia, I see users pointing to that itself as proof of the company's conspiracy. Do you really think RIM could talk the Saudis into pulling a national stunt? And the UAE and India and Lebanon? Puleeeze.

I'm not sure where the conspiracy theories come from but we know their subjects aren't limited to technology companies and industry figures. Whether it's an alleged secret iPhone recall or two competitors releasing new products at the same time to ruin the other's plans, there are always people who seem to expect the worst in human behavior. Some of it is probably post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking -- people often imagine if one thing follows another, one thing caused the other -- and sometimes it's just imagination run amok. Of course, it's hard to prove a negative, so the stories keep churning. Perhaps one day Jamie and Adam will tackle tech industry myths and put some of these to bed on Mythbusters.

In the meantime, what's your favorite urban technology myth or conspiracy theory?

Michael Gartenberg is a partner at Altimeter Group. His weblog can be found at gartenblog.net. Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.
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