Apple and Appropriate Secrecy

About a year and a half ago, I was disappointed with one of the key choices Apple had made, given that they’re often described as one of the most admired companies in the world. I wrote a piece called “Secrecy Does Not Scale“, to try to describe the issue:

[T]he 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.

Well, if it’s worth calling out companies when they do something wrong, then it’s just as important to highlight when they do something right. Apple is to be commended for having addressed many of the key issues that were enabled by its lack of transparency, from answering questions about the working conditions of its suppliers in China to becoming far more open about the workings of the markets it controls through its dominant iTunes and iOS platforms.

  • Apple has published an industry-leading supplier responsibility document, offering insights into the environment at Foxconn and expressing a commitment to ensuring humane and healthy conditions. And this document was clearly in progress before the publication of Joel Johnson‘s excellent Wired cover story about the topic (though admittedly, after significant coverage from outlets such as the New York Times), so it seems the company has been proactive about the issue even before receiving its most pointed media criticism.
  • Apple’s nearly-metonymic leader Steve Jobs personally became much more transparent in his communications before his recent medical leave, answering so many emails that multiple blogs like Emails From Steve Jobs have popped up to document them. That’s amplified by unprecedented communications like Apple SVP Phil Schiller’s on-the-record email to John Gruber about app store rejections, just a week after my critical post had gone up. (To be clear, I’m ascribing zero credit to my post for this change, but wanted to make clear the timeline because it seems Apple noticed the how untenable its position was at about the same time many of the rest of us did.)
  • Just as important to their developer community, Apple offered clear, publicly-accessible published guidelines by which applications are evaluated for inclusion in the App Store. You can debate them, disagree with them, or be frustrated by them, but you can’t say you don’t know what they are.

That’s not to say that Apple still isn’t fantastically secretive about many things they do. The company still works frantically to try to shroud their product launches in as many layers of secrecy as always. Apple will certainly never be a company that puts out press releases about internal reorganizations or promotions, thank goodness. But in just 18 months, there has been a fundamental shift in the way the company communicates about the issues which have the greatest social impact on the world.

It’s a positive evolution, and one that is worth calling out. Frankly, I still think they could loosen up about the secrecy around product launches, too. But I don’t care about that as long as it’s not having a cost in either the quality of life of the people who make their products, or in the ability for those who support the Apple ecosystem to make a living on their own terms.

And there’s still a tremendous opportunity for a company to combine Apple’s culture of design and user experience with a truly open and communicative style of doing business. In fact, I suspect it may be exactly that combination that would be required for the company to face a serious challenge in any of the many markets that it dominates.