Back when the National Security Agency still had a low profile, before it became the villainous adversary of action movies or the subject of congressional inquiries, there was a quip amongst the agency’s employees that the abbreviation NSA stood for “Never Say Anything.” But shift just one letter in that abbreviation and you’ll get “NDA,” the document that’s beginning to make Apple look more and more like the über-secretive government agency.
According to reports from developers, the latest close-mouthed move from Cupertino is that Apple has started branding its communication to developers—including App Store rejection messages—with all-caps notices that the messages are themselves covered by Apple’s non-disclosure agreement.
It’s not clear whether or not those messages are just reminders that such communication has always been covered by the NDA, or whether this is Apple actively extending the reach of the NDA—the terms of the agreement being themselves confidential—but it’s worth observing that the change comes not long after a handful of app rejections became high-profile news.
Regardless of whether or not those communications have always been covered by Apple’s confidentiality agreement, reinforcing that fact now is a tactical blunder on Apple’s part. Because the last thing you want to do when people take issue with your lack of transparency is to institute more opacity. Apple’s relationship with iPhone developers is quickly turning into a parody of security through obscurity—after all, if developers can’t say anything, then how could anything possibly be wrong?
Look, not communicating with developers is A Bad Thing. Not letting developers communicate with each other is A Very Bad Thing. Unlike with development on its platforms, like the Mac, Apple hasn't even provided a way for developers to talk to each other. No web forums, no mailing lists, nothing. In fact, with the NDA Apple's gone in the other direction entirely, prohibiting discussion of iPhone development, even among people who are all bound by the NDA.
Apple’s well known for holding onto its uncompromising vision of what technology should be, but the key word there is quickly shifting from “vision” to “uncompromising.” The cone of silence that’s long covered Apple’s product announcements and roadmaps has become standard operating procedure in all facets of its business, from communicating with developers to communicating with customers. But here's the thing: while it’s a great idea to keep your troop movements and communications hidden from enemies’ prying eyes, it’s a little ridiculous to keep them hidden from the people on your own side.
Look, if Apple were a kindergarten student, its report card right now would read “does not play well with others.” As the only game in iPhone app town (population: 6,325 flashlight applications and counting), Apple holds all the cards. Which means that yes, it can deny whomever it wants and it can control the flow of information however it wants—like a five year old, Apple can take its toys and go home. But it’s never been a question of what Apple can do; it's a question of what it should do. And I’m not talking some high-falutin’ moral sense of “should” either, I’m talking business—cold, hard cash.
Sure, the NDA probably isn’t going to harm Apple’s relationship with huge software companies like EA or even the guy who’s making a quarter million dollars off his iPhone game, but it is going to hurt its ties with independent developers. Now, I can’t make you care about independent developers, but I can tell you that you’ll miss them when they’re gone. Because the independent developers are the guys who innovate, the guys who push the platform to its limits. And if you want to scoff and ask what difference two guys in a garage could possibly make, well, asked and answered.
So instead of clamping down on communication, Apple needs to institute a campaign of glasnost. The NDA is a Berlin Wall, keeping the oppressed citizens of iPhone town hemmed in. And the more that communication and freedom are stifled by that wall, the more people are going to be lining up to slip through the cracks to what they perceive as a land of freedom.
There may very well be a good reason for the NDA to remain in place—but that shouldn’t prohibit Apple from explaining that reason to its developers. All it takes is for Apple to be a little more forthcoming to begin to undo the damage that’s been done. It's time for Apple to diverge from the path of "Never Say Anything" before developers take NDA to mean "Never Develop Apps" for Apple.