Too many secrets: Three ways Apple could loosen up

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I’ve been mainlining Downton Abbey for the last few days, and one line in particular has stayed with me: that moment when the Lady Grantham and the Dowager Countess lament, “Is there anything worse than losing your lady’s maid?”

As long as we're talking about the kinds of niggling problems that could only trouble people in the "first world," then yes, there is something much, much worse: It’s when you buy a new iPhone on launch day and, due to its new shape and size, you can’t get a decent case for it—or connect it to any of your old accessories. As I tell my children daily, life is rough.

Sure, this is a minor issue in the broad scheme of things, but it’s just one example of how Apple could stand to temper its legendary secrecy with a little more openness in order to improve its customers’ lives.

Lightning in a bottled-up, top-secret container

In the weeks leading up to the launch of the iPhone 5, rumors abounded about the smartphone's shape shifting and, in particular, about the replacement for the dock connector. But many vendors—like consumers—didn’t have a chance to see the new connector in person until launch day.

Apple's changes to the iPhone 5's connectors meant a subpar experience for many early adopters.

That meant that vendors couldn’t update their docks and other accessories ahead of the launch. So they rushed to implement those changes without, in some cases, adequately testing their products. The end result? Consumers suffered—in a “losing your lady’s maid” kind of way—from a less than optimal out-of-the-box experience. And that type of disappointment undermines the excitement that surrounds an Apple launch.

Clearly there were at least a handful of vendors who were privy to Apple’s closely held secret, because there were a few cases available for the iPhone 5 around its launch date. But choices (and stock) were extremely limited for several weeks.

Likewise, while a few apps here and there had been optimized to take advantage of the new, larger screen, the overwhelming majority of developers had to head back to the digital drawing board—or instead suffer the indignity of seeing their apps with black bars displayed at the top and bottom of the screen.

Scoff all you want (my Android-loving brother-in-law did). We all want to have our cool new phone, but it can be nerve-wracking to have to take it outside unprotected, or frustating to not be able to charge it in your car because Apple kept its changes under wraps instead of giving vendors a bit more of a heads up.

iWork in secret

That said, you can make an argument for not releasing information outside the company prior to a device launch (especially Apple, which so often has to play the expectations game). But why keep your own employees in the dark?

According to Inside Apple author Adam Lashinsky, many Apple employees end up working in a vacuum; he has described the “lockdown rooms” where those developers toil. The problem is that when employees can’t see the whole picture, they can’t always make good decisions. (For example, might the launch of Maps have gone smoother if more of Apple's employees—and their spouses and close friends—had been able to provide a lot more real-world, pre-launch testing?)

Safari's development was top secret—it even involved loyalty oaths.

Don Melton, who headed the original Safari project at Apple, wrote on his blog that “we operated the project like some CIA black op—with loyalty oaths and all.” He recalls that “the whole damn project was a secret,” and notes how difficult that secrecy made it for him to hire the original Safari development team, “since I couldn’t tell them what they were working on until they took the job.”

That’s, well, a little weird. We’re talking about matters of national security here. An Internet browser—a tool many people use to look at videos of dancing cats—is not what makes America a superpower, so why act like it does? The fact that Melton even has to point out that his team wasn’t actually under “physical lockdown like Jony Ive’s design group was then, or like the iPhone team would be years later,” is, frankly, a bit terrifying from a human resources perspective. How many people—who haven’t actually trained to be secret agents—can live and work in a top-secret atmosphere like that for a sustained period of time?

The thing is, cross-innovation could very well help Apple. Remember back in 2011 when iCloud was first released? It worked beautifully with iOS. With Lion? Not so much. If the iOS and OS X development teams had merged back then, we might have been a step ahead of where we are now. And that would be a good thing, at least from where I’m sitting. I like it when my iPhone and my MacBook Air play nicely together.

It’s always darkest in the black market

When you walk into Target and they’re out of whatever you came for, the staff can generally tell you when the item will be back in stock. They might even be able to locate you one nearby and have it shipped to your local store for free.

Lack of information about iPhone availability can drive up prices on black markets, especially overseas.

When you walk into an Apple store and ask for an in-demand item that’s out of stock, don’t expect a lot of information. Sure, the store can put in an order for more iPhones, but according to one former employee, that location might not get what it requested, since corporate powers that be determine where units are most needed.

This lack of information from Apple also creates some truly insane black markets, particularly in the Far East. I happened to be in Singapore in late October 2012—after the iPhone 5 had been officially released there—and I stopped by six or seven Premium Apple Resellers (there isn’t a brick-and-mortar Apple store in Singapore). None could tell me when they’d get a new shipment of iPhones.

And yet they were surrounded by unofficial sellers in kiosks with plentiful stock—albeit it at a hefty markup. In some places, 16GB phones were being sold for as much as US$1250. Apple’s obviously not making the extra profit on those sales, and the price gouging only feeds the frustration of even the most dedicated Apple fans.

Why not communicate more clearly on supply issues? Why not let the stores that are officially affiliated with Apple—and of course the official Apple Stores themselves— know when stock will be available? Apple’s often regarded as having the best supply chain in the business; this seems like another way Apple could take one of its strengths and apply it to its stated mission of delighting its customers.

Here comes the sun

Despite these and similar issues, there are signs that Apple may be lifting the cone of silence. In October 2012, the company announced a restructuring that put several key executives—Jony Ive, Eddy Cue, Craig Federighi, and Bob Mansfield—in a position to oversee larger groups of developers. If we’re lucky, this restructuring will, as the press release promised, “encourage even more collaboration between … hardware, software and services teams.”

We can haggle over whether “even more” is the right term to use—it certainly doesn’t set the bar very high—but the point is that Tim Cook doesn’t seem to be afraid to kick down a few windowless walls and open things up a bit.

That starts with Cook himself: A few months before the reorganization, Cook emailed a customer to reassure him that the company would address the pro Mac market with “something really great” in 2013. Yes, it’s vague, but it’s more information than we’ve often been given in the past—and we didn’t have to wait for an official event to hear it.

So I think there are grounds to be cautiously optimistic that things are changing for the better. And that’s one secret that should be shouted from the rooftops.

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