Spies. International intrigue. High-tech gadgets. Secret informers.
It must be time for Macworld, the annual gathering of the Apple clan in San Francisco. The trade show, beginning today at Moscone Center, is where the innovative computer company traditionally announces its new products.
In part because Apple Computer Inc. can be more secretive than the Federal Reserve, Web sites have sprung up all over the world purporting to have inside information on what company co-founder and Chief Executive Steve Jobs will be unveiling. Then the devoted underdogs of the computer world -- Macintosh users -- passionately debate the quality of the rumors.
The Web sites generally treat the whole matter as sport, lavishly congratulating themselves when they get something right and quietly dismissing blunders with explanations that a political spin doctor would love. Saying that Apple "pulled the product at the last minute" is the equivalent of "the dog ate my homework."
Among this year's rumors:
* The company will introduce an Internet videophone, based on the fact that Apple has registered the domain name "iphone.org," according to the folks at LowEndMac.com. But a visitor to MacRumors.com pointed out that Apple also owns "mammals.org." So maybe it will introduce a new life form.
* Noting that Apple patented a process to make electronic devices capable of "dynamically changing" their outer appearance, posters on MacRumors .com and other sites have been speculating that cases of future Macs will be able to change color or spell out the user's name on a whim.
* A Spymac.com visitor said with confidence that the iMac would be getting a 19-inch screen. Others pointed out that it would make the computer topple over.
More mundane predictions involve faster processing speeds and reduced prices. But anything speculators get right provides a thrill.
"There is something about being an insider and getting some news about Apple that no one else has that is really exciting," said the founder of ThinkSecret.com, who calls himself "Nick DePlume." In October 2001, he accurately predicted the imminent announcement of the iPod music player.
"When you get something right," said Nick, a 17-year-old high school student in upstate New York, "it's just so much fun."
Apparently it's not the company's idea of fun. Like several other sites, ThinkSecret.com has been hit with cease-and-desist orders from Apple. The most recent one came last month when Nick posted a screen shot supposedly from a major upcoming update of iPhoto, a photo editing and storage software product. He removed the image but took it as a validation.
"I don't hear from them when it's wrong," Nick said.
Apple declined to comment on the rumor sites. But the company has been known to take them very seriously.
When a Macrumors.com visitor posted a schematic drawing of a new case for the PowerMac line of computers, site founder Arnold Kim got a subpoena demanding that he give up any information on the person who posted the drawing.
"I didn't want to get someone in trouble, but I talked to some people and they said the wisest decision was to cooperate," said Kim, 28, a medical intern at the University of North Carolina Hospitals. He gave authorities the poster's e-mail address.
When new PowerMacs debuted in August, the drawings turned out to be correct. Last month, Apple contract worker Jose Lopez was arrested in Sacramento and charged with divulging trade secrets in connection with the case.
Apple also is suing Lopez over the matter. Lopez's lawyer, Fidel Martinez, did not respond to a request for comment.
"The whole thing kind of has a soap opera feel to it," said Kim, who said he knows that Mac fans around the world are checking his site daily. "With some people, this borders on an obsession."
Kim, however, didn't want to be included in that category.
"I don't generally admit to people that I run a Mac rumor site," he said.
Sometimes predictions are way off base. Before last year's Macworld, Spymac.com predicted that Apple was about to announce an "iWalk" hand-held computer. The site even included photos and videos of the supposed device.
No such product was announced, then or since. But there's always this year.