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The Power, Value, and Virtues of Rumor

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Every year or two, Bill Gates writes an employee memo outlining his views on Microsoft's highest pending priorities. Every year or two, like clockwork, those same memos get leaked to the press and are published externally almost as quickly as Microsoft gets the word out internally. Author and columnist Ed Tittel explains the inner workings of the Windows rumor mill in particular, and tries to shed some light on high-tech rumor mills in general, as he examines who got the word out and how it spread from there. In the process, he shares some great information resources and makes some interesting speculations about the relative importance of rumor versus fact.
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In every industry I can think of, information flows through unofficial channels as well as official ones. You can view the unofficial channel as a collection of unsanctioned notions, ideas, and shared beliefs that are known collectively as the "rumor mill." On the other side of this street you'll find the world of product announcements, press releases, and other official, approved announcements from the gatekeepers of information at various companies, organizations, and institutions.

Although the twains don't always meet, and neither the rumor mill nor official channels encompass the vast mass of information on high-tech products or technologies, it's extremely interesting how these two fundamentally different information channels sometimes interact. It's very often the case that official news follows in the wake of hyperactivity in the rumor mill, be it to counteract or correct mistaken apprehensions, or to co-opt information or situations that might otherwise spin out of control.

Reality Check, Anyone?

In a very real sense, however, the rumor mill is an important reality check for official news channels. Certainly, without the rumor mill at work, particular kinds of bad news might never see the light of day or never be acknowledged or acted upon, officially speaking. Likewise, without the rumor mill to guide planning and activities, those professionals who follow in the footsteps of corporations or organizations that release products and technologies would be completely at the mercy of whatever official sources of information might or might not grudgingly be made available to them.

For example, when it comes to planning work for upcoming releases of Windows or other Microsoft products (MS Office, Internet Information Server, and so forth) I've found the rumor mill to be a more trustworthy and accurate source of timing and content information than most official Microsoft communications. This is especially true the further out from putative release dates one goes — in other words, when releases are more than 6 to 9 months out, the rumor mill is often more accurate about projecting release dates than are the official company information releases.

What goes for Microsoft also goes for most other industry players — be it IBM, Novell, Sun, or somebody else. I'm picking on Microsoft in this article because I use the leak of Bill Gates' recent "Trustworthy Computing" memo to the public as a profound example of the power and importance of the rumor mill in tracking the words and actions of high-tech players.

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