The latest Apple TV rumor gives us mere mortals a purview into just how that mysterious Apple rumor economy, with its "unnamed sources" and "people familiar with the matter," operates.

Broadly, there are two possible sources from which we can learn about Apple's unannounced product lines: From Apple or from its suppliers. True, CEO Tim Cook has vowed to "double down on secrecy on products" in the already intensely locked down Apple fortress, the Apple mill has not relented. It's possible that Cook lied and more people inside the Cupertino dungeon have started yapping. But, much of the time, the information leaks not from inside Apple, but from some part of the manufacturing process Cook does not directly control.

Indeed, in the case of today's Apple TV gossip, the intel came from a shipping report. Panjiva, a company that organizes shipping data, discovered the following deliveries to Apple from BYD Precision Manufactures:

  • On August 25th, Apple received a shipment described as "Set Top Box with Communication Function" from BYD Precision Manufacture in Shenzhen, China.
  • On August 18th, Apple received another shipment, again from BYD, described as "Set Top Boxes."
  • And on August 11th, Apple received its first shipment from BYD of "Set Top Box with Communication Function."

From there, Panjiva surmised that all this had to do with a new Apple TV, which discovery the tech blog GigaOm turned it into the following: "." And since then, over a dozen tech blogs have picked up the report

This kind of Apple snooping is common practice for sites like Digitimes and Apple Insider, which will post any and all rumors concerning the company. Those sites often rely on supplier movements for their intelligence: Digitimes uses a mix of "industry sources" and reports from component-makers and suppliers for its posts; Apple Insider does the same, while also chronicling the musings of analysts with no particular knowledge of Apple's internal workings.

Despite predicting some actual Apple innovations, those sites have what can only be called a pretty terrible track record. And as experiments have shown, it's pretty easy to trick the rumor bloggers into posting fake reports.

As such, mainstream tech blogs — TechCrunch, 9to5Mac, GigaOm — decide, based on previous rumors, gut feelings, and the reliability of the source, whether to accept an item as near-fact or dismiss it. In the case of the Apple TV rumor, GigaOm decided that a shipping report from the Panjiva Shipment Search database warranted attention. And, certainly, that does appear to be a creditable source. 

Then there are "people familiar with the matter" who talk to major newspapers and news services (The New York Times, Reuters, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal). Even in those venerable pages, however, much of the reporting also comes from the supply side. For example, this WSJ report that Apple will announce not one but two iPhones next week was based on information from "people who work at...companies" outside Apple itself. 

On other occasions, these publications refer to unnamed sources, who, some have suggested, represent Apple flacks deliberately feeding rumors to the press for strategic reasons. Most of the time, though, it's not such a sexy mystery: It's just some blogger looking at shipping logs.