Apple: Secrecy Does Not Scale

Apple is justifiably revered in the worlds of technology and culture for creating one of the most powerful brands in the world based on the combination of some key elements: Great user experience and design, and an extraordinary secrecy punctuated by surprising reveals. But the element of secrecy that’s been required to maintain Apple’s mystique has incurred an increasingly costly price. Apple must transform itself and leave its history of secrecy behind, not just to continue being innovative and to protect the fundamentals of its business, but because the cost of keeping these secrets has become morally and ethically untenable.

Some recent history:

  • Sun Danyong, a young man in Dongguan, China, who worked for Foxconn, one of Apple’s most important iPhone suppliers, killed himself after misplacing a prototype iPhone device.
  • Apple prohibited the Google Voice application from being distributed on its iTunes application store with no public explanation of why, a refusal to offer any suggestions that could permit the application to be distributed, and no process for appealing the decision.
  • Apple removed third-party Google Voice-compatible applications by explaining that they violate a policy against applications that duplicate native iPhone functionality, despite this rule being wildly inconsistent in its enforcement. Again, Apple refused to offer any suggestions for how developers could comply with the guidelines, and offered no process for appealing the decision.

The circumstances of Danyong’s suicide are murky — it’s possible that he was involved in supplying the iPhone prototype to copycat manufacturers which would create knockoff devices, but the theory has also been advanced that he was merely unable to cope with the stress of the extreme secrecy required for his work. Regardless of the reason for Danyong’s death, copycat manufacturers are a fact of doing business in China; It is only the extraordinary veil drawn around the product that makes such disclosures so particularly fraught.

Similarly, every carrier (and nearly every mobile application platform) has some arduous or even capricious limitations on the applications that can be created by developers. But for better or worse, those limitations are spelled out clearly, in a way that developers can anticipate, and decisions to prohibit particular applications are explicit even when they are annoying or offensive to those of us who believe in open platforms.

This means that those of us who support Apple with our dollars and attention are supporting a company that chooses to operate with an extreme and excessive layer of secrecy, even when making reasonable business decisions. This squelching of communication about Apple’s products results in customers being unhappy or uncertain of the future value of their purchases, developers being too afraid to bet their livelihoods on a platform whose fundamental opportunities could be destroyed at any time, and suppliers being forced to inflict unreasonable or even inhumane restrictions on their employees. And that’s in addition to the incredible stress that Apple employees themselves have had to endure, from missing Christmas to get products ready for MacWorld without even being able to tell family members why they must do so, to public-facing communications staff having to endure the misery of telling developers that their products or businesses are being terminated by fiat, without so much as an explanation.

I’m certain the web’s usual contingent of soulless Randists will believe this level of suffering is somehow acceptable despite its moral cost, because The Market has made Apple a success. But there’s even a financial argument: Apple spends an enormous amount of money on protecting and obfuscating normal business operations that any other company can do in the open. It’s hard to estimate just how much the overhead of this extreme secrecy costs the company, but it’s obviously many millions of dollars extra per year. And it will only get more expensive as large-scale realtime communications get more and more commoditized.

The Case for Secrecy

Now, if being ultra-private about announcements has such a terrible cost, then why does Apple go to all the trouble? Apologists would say that Apple gets three significant benefits from its incredible secrecy:

  • An extremely disproportionate amount of extraordinarily favorable press from its “surprise” product launches
  • A significant lead time on the rest of the market being able to copy Apple innovations
  • An intangible benefit to the brand being so tightly controlled by the company

These benefits are real to some extent today, but in each case, the benefit is almost certainly not viable over the long term. Let’s look at why: “But they get so much free press from the element of surprise in their announcements!” This isn’t true — for almost every major announcement of the past several years, we’ve known the major points days, or even weeks, in advance. In fact, they earn the majority of their press from the extraordinary appeal of their products in design and user experience, as well as the pure showmanship they put into their signature launch events, which are unequalled thus far in the industry.

“But if they don’t keep stuff a secret, other companies will be able to copy them!” Other companies already do copy Apple, and always have. And — dirty little secret — Apple has always copied other companies as well. This is a normal part of the business cycle (indeed, before its current bastardization, the patent system was designed to encourage this behavior), and no amount of secrecy will stop it. More to the point, if the only reason people are buying your product is because it has no viable competitors, then your standing in the marketplace is too tenuous to be defended anyway.

“But people love Apple’s brand because it’s so micromanaged!” This is the most insidious and inaccurate of all the justifications. In fact, since Apple’s brand began to recover in the late 90s, two of the greatest and most influential global brands in the world have emerged: Google and Barack Obama. In both cases, they’ve embraced openness, transparency, and letting their communities define their brand. Despite my belief in my recent pointed criticisms of Google, it’s worth noting that a number of high-profile Googlers responded personally, both privately and publicly, to the issues that I raised, all indicating that they took the discussion to heart. And President Obama has taken his penchant for talking things through to such an extreme that it’s nearly become a let’s-have-some-beers parody of itself.

In contrast, Apple’s employees will be too cowed to publicly respond to this post, though I know they’ll see it. Partners are tired of being bullied or facing petulant sanctions for accidental disclosures of relatively innocuous bits of information. And eventually, anyone talented and independent-minded enough to participate in the kind of innovation practiced at Apple is going to chafe at being constrained in how they can express themselves.

Real Artistry

Self expression matters because Apple has always explicitly tied itself to the world of the arts and expression. One of my favorite (possibly apocryphal) Steve Jobs quotes is “Real artists ship”, a testament to the fact that an invention that never sees the light of day can’t affect anyone. But if we’re talking about real artists, then let’s consider all of their traits.

Real artists also expose themselves, making themselves vulnerable through honest expression so that their audience can see their humanity, and thus form a connection to something universal in all of us. Apple is still holding on to the centralized, Pravda-style public relations that artists used in 1984 when the Mac was introduced. Back then, giant record labels and a few powerful media outlets could tightly control the flow of information around a tiny cluster of superstars. The superstars of 1984 — Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna — subscribed to the doctrine of doing no interviews or press, and having their only communication with the public happen through tightly-managed events where they had total control.

Today’s biggest and most influential artists, from Kanye West to Trent Reznor to Radiohead, are very nearly competing to see who can be most transparent. The immediacy and intimacy with which they communicate and create their works is dramatic, and they encourage their communities to get involved in a ritual that Apple used to encourage: Rip, Mix, Burn. The sad truth is that Apple is still stuck in an anachronistic, 1984 mode of communicating with the world. If Apple doesn’t evolve, it’ll become a pathetic-looking giant, constantly playing whack-a-mole with information leaks, diminishing its relevance by antagonizing the very creators it has so long sought to identify with. Worse, while the fashions of 1984 might be back in style, the ability to tightly control a message is never going to come in vogue again, and the one thing Apple’s brand can’t withstand is suddenly becoming uncool. (I’m pretty sure Apple’s also had a word or two to say about why today’s world shouldn’t be like 1984.)

Look Around And Learn

Every company, when facing a serious problem, suddenly starts blogging. From the giant auto manufacturers to troubled banks, it’s been astounding to see how frequently companies figure out that embracing transparency yields an enormous improvement in how much their customers and community trust them. When Amazon screwed up by abusing their DRM powers over Kindle owners, they were a little slow to respond, but absolutely flawless in their message when they had Jeff Bezos himself post a simple, straightforward apology to Kindle owners in their own community, complete with open comments for people to respond. And it was an easy leap for Amazon to make — they have extensive experience not just with consumer-facing blogs, but in talking directly to developers or business partners as well. While much was made of Amazon recalling George Orwell’s titles, it’s Apple’s behavior that is most Orwellian overall.

This lesson isn’t entirely lost on Apple; Once in a great while a missive will arrive from on high arrives in the form of a one-page letter from Steve Jobs on a significant issue. And when the debacle of MobileMe’s bumbling launch got bad enough, Apple even launched a short-lived blog to address the issue. So it’s not impossible that Apple can start to communicate in at least a semi-human, responsive way. Even better, Apple clearly has some parts of its corporate culture that want to do the right thing, as evidenced by its unusual willingness to offer refunds to a variety of disgruntled classes of customers over the years.

But the reason for Apple to embrace some open communications channels isn’t merely because of the practical necessity of talking to customers, developers and partners. It’s because this is the right thing to do. Apple has long been able to pride itself on being innovative even when the market wasn’t demanding bold moves of them. Nothing could be more courageous than for Apple to take a decisive step to redefine a core part of their brand’s history to be more in keeping with contemporary communication. Moving from the classic Mac OS to OS X or from PowerPC to Intel would be nothing compared to a transition from ultra-secretive to collaborative and expressive. It would show that Apple has the self-awareness to evolve into a better, more humane organization than they’ve been in the past.

The reckoning Apple has reached, whether it’s admitted or not, is that its secrecy is compromising its humanity. Some of the smartest and most innovative developers on any platform are leaving and taking their creativity with them. The trade press who had embarrassed themselves with their effusive cheering for Apple in the past are rushing to cover absurdities like entire sites being dedicated to Kremlinology about Apple’s platform decisions. If losing your cool doesn’t move you, Apple, then what about people losing their lives to this domineering, outdated mindset?

It’s incumbent upon Apple to do the moral thing here. Treat your employees, customers, suppliers and partner companies better, by letting them participate in the thing most of your products are designed for: Human self-expression. If the ethical argument is unpersuasive, then focus on the long-term viability of your marketing and branding efforts, and realize that a technology company that is determined to prevent information from being spread is an organization at war with itself. Civil wars are expensive, have no winners, and incur lots of casualties.

There is a path out of the current quagmire. Apple can start to see its customers as collaborators, and start to encourage them to use the very Apple products they’ve purchased as a conduit for sharing messages about the company and its products. Apple’s fans have already shown a willingness to create fictitious print, television, and online advertising that exceeds other company’s actual efforts in quality while still being slavishly faithful to Apple’s brand guidelines. And being an open company doesn’t mean that there can’t be the occasional big surprise — in fact companies like Google often find it easier to have things “hide in plain site” because so much of what they do is open that the curious often don’t dig past the surface to find out what else is going on.

Finally, there is the opportunity for Apple’s employees themselves to act as ambassadors for the brand. Frankly, those Geniuses in the Apple stores aren’t the most flattering face for the company. But instead of prohibiting all the other thousands of Apple employees from engaging in conversations about their professional lives on the web and in social media, perhaps they could be empowered to express the company’s ideas in their own words. That would be an enormous resource that would be unleashed by Apple’s evolution into a communicative company.

So Apple: Do the right thing. End your addiction to secrecy.