It's a game all too familiar to technology journalists and anyone following the industry closely: Company X teases, announces, or releases a flagship product. Apple — purely by "coincidence" — makes big news within days or even hours of the event. That news can be in the form of an invitation to an event of Apple's own or, just as common, a rumor posted to a primary news source like The Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg.
Of course, it's not actually a coincidence at all. Apple is widely understood to feed interesting bits of information on future products to news outlets (mostly the Journal) when it feels the need to spin a message or move the spotlight off of a competitor. It's a PR tactic that's as brilliant as it is dirty, because it works: as the retail release of last year's Samsung Galaxy S III was mere days away, people were talking about the rumor iPhone 5 would have a screen "at least" 4 inches big. Weeks later, Apple tossed a monkey wrench in the brand new Nexus 7's direction with news of a smaller iPad. There's little doubt that at least a few would-be Nexus 7 buyers held off, waiting to see what Apple's small tablet would be able to do.
A dramatic shift for a company used to making news, not reacting to it
And yet we haven't had any juicy, credible Apple rumors to discuss this week in the run-up to the Galaxy S4. No event invites to Apple's usual haunt, San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, to breathlessly speculate about. Instead, we got one of Apple's most public figures, Phil Schiller, talking trash to the Journal and Reuters about Android and the flagship phone that Samsung is expected to unveil this evening.
Public, preemptive slamming of a competitor is far outside Apple's PR wheelhouse; it's a dramatic shift for a company used to making news rather than reacting to it. But why is it happening?
"Apple's products continue to sell well, but Apple does not have any new products ready to announce," says Avi Greengart of research firm Current Analysis. "[Schiller] is trying to get a positive story line in the press ahead of time."
"[Schiller] is trying to get a positive story line in the press ahead of time."
Indeed, the iWatch rumors have already swirled, and the next iPad — which sources other than the stalwart Journal are reporting could come as early as next month — may be considered by Apple too tangential to the Galaxy S4 to use it as a weapon for disrupting tonight's news flow. As for the next iPhone, it could still be many months off, its specs too fluid right now for Apple PR handlers to whisper definitive information to a WSJ reporter in a back alley somewhere.
But the fact remains that, even in the absence of rumors worth leaking, Apple didn't have to say anything. Phil Schiller didn't have to embark on a PR tour. Cupertino's behavior this week is yet another symptom of Samsung's stratospheric rise in the smartphone market globally, a rise that challenges Apple and has outright stifled Android competitors like HTC and Sony (HTC's flagship phone for 2013, the One, was announced less than a month ago). Even if the Galaxy S4 isn't the best phone ever made — and, in light of fantastic devices like the iPhone 5, Nexus 4, and One, there's a very real chance it won't be — Samsung's enormous marketing budget and increasingly Apple-like pull with network operators become more of a threat to Apple's bottom line with every new iPhone that's released.
No matter what the Galaxy S4 turns out to be this evening, expect aggression on both sides, and expect it for the foreseeable future. As Schiller would attest, this isn't an announcement to be ignored.