Who's Manipulating Apple Stock With This iWatch Story?

Stock manipulation!

That was the cry from Apple fanbloggers last month when the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple had reduced component orders, a possible sign of softening demand for Apple products. That story broke nine days before Apple was to report its earnings, and sent the stock reeling downward.

But if that was the case, then who’s manipulating Apple stock now, with this sudden barrage of “leaks” about the iWatch?

Does no one else think it’s kind of remarkable that this unreleased product suddenly starts showing up in dozens of blog posts and press stories? And that these leaks happened, coincidentally, right after Apple’s stock endured a brutal slide from just above $700 in September to a low of $435 in January?

The last stock plunge took place after Apple reported disappointing earnings for the holiday quarter, and ended up treading water in the $450 range. That was Jan. 28.

Note what happens next. On Feb. 5, the Wall Street Journal reports that after taking a beating on Wall Street, Apple has been “subtly increasing some of its PR,” doing things like sending reporters “more favorable third-party reports on the company.”

In other words: Apple wanted to get the stock back up, and so its flacks were reaching out to reporters and briefing them on background, trying to convince them that things at Apple were better than what Wall Street believed.

(See also Apple May Not Have A Choice But To Release A Watch, by Matt Asay)

Anatomy Of A Pump

Meanwhile, just as Apple’s flacks have started working the phones, we start to hear drumbeats about a miraculous new product. Wow! What a coincidence.

And what is this product? Why, it's an amazing, life-changing, paradigm-shifting, stolen-from-the-future gorgeously designed product, a product that you've always wanted and needed though you never thought about it before, a product that will once again put Apple ahead of everyone else: The iWatch.

Bits and pieces about Apple doing a watch have been floating around since at least last year. But suddenly, in the past few weeks, just as Apple has started briefing reporters, this story starts heating up.

It begins with things like this post on Jan. 30 by MG Siegler of TechCrunch. Siegler, who basically operates as an unpaid Apple PR guy, says he’s getting a Pebble smartwatch, and then on goes for a couple thousand words about how huge this whole smartwatch thing could be and boy does he want one and man wouldn’t a smartwatch just change everything and wow, I bet Apple and Google are looking at this space, don’t you?

Then on Feb. 5 comes this even more incredibly overlong piece by Bruce Tognazzini, a former Apple interface designer, who suddenly, for no apparent reason, feels prompted to wax on for thousands and thousands of words about all the amazing things that Apple’s iWatch (he’s already given it a name and says it “will fill a gaping hole in the Apple ecosystem”) might do.

The Story Goes Mainstream

Then, on Sunday, the drumbeats turned into something more, when two major newspapers both ran iWatch stories.

One scoop came from Jessica Lessin at the Wall Street Journal, the same reporter who wrote about Apple doing more briefings with reporters. (Weird, right?) Another scoop came from Nick Bilton at the New York Times, whose story ran online on Sunday and then had a nice big spot on the front of Monday morning’s Times business section.

A big section-front story on a Monday morning in the New York Times! What fortuitous timing! You’d almost think it had been planned. Bilton’s story cited as sources “people familiar with the company’s explorations, who spoke on condition that they not be named because they are not allowed to publicly discuss unannounced products.” Wonder who that could be?

And what is the significance of the iWatch? “Investors would most likely embrace an iWatch,” Bilton writes, “with some already saying that wearable computing could replace the smartphone over the next decade.”

Ah, yes. Investors. Mustn’t forget them. Ahem.

Bilton even got an interview with the CTO of Corning Glass Technologies, the company that supplies Apple with glass for the iPhone. The Corning guy doesn’t talk specifically about making a watch, but he says that it could be done. What’s noteworthy here is that this is one of Apple’s big suppliers talking to the press, on the record, about something that brushes up against Apple. If you know anything about Apple you know that this doesn’t happen without Apple’s permission. Don’t believe me? Go try to get an interview with Foxconn, about anything, and see if they’ll do it without Apple’s permission.

And We’re Off

So now we’re off to the races. As the Atlantic Wire points out, when the Journal and the Times both run the same story within hours of each other, “The Apple iWatch Rumors Just Became Apple iWatch Reports.”

The story has been everywhere. Huffington Post, CBS, ABC. Everywhere. We’ve even seen photos of what it might look like, long descriptions of all the amazing features it might have, and all the problems it might solve. You won’t need passwords! It will have an NFC chip so you can buy stuff with it. It will be a TV remote. It will give you driving directions. It will tell you who’s calling on your phone, and send you reminders.

But why is Apple leaking this story now? Philip Elmer-Dewitt of Fortune picks up on the timing and has five theories:

  1. To distract people from Google Glass
  2. To boost Apple’s stock price
  3. To deflect attention from iTV, which isn’t ready yet
  4. To deflect attention from the story about Wall Street demanding Apple distribute some of its huge cash stash
  5. To lower expectations about what an iWatch may do.

All great theories. I’ll go with the stock price, thanks.

Guess What, It’s Working

Oh, and gosh, look what’s been going on with the stock price in the last 11 days. Why, since bottoming out below $440 on Feb. 4, the stock has been climbing and climbing. Just today it’s up more than $7 to $482 — on the basis of a product that as far as anyone knows does not actually exist, and might never exist.

Oh, and goodness me, but today we’re also getting a fresh leak about the iPhone 5S, with photos and everything!

All those fanbloggers who were screaming about stock manipulation last month? It takes one to know one, I guess.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.