Apple’s Obsession With Secrecy

Steve Jobs jokes about his health during one of Apple produc announcements before he took the sick leave absence.  (Credit:  Apple Inc.)
Steve Jobs jokes about his health during one of Apple products announcements before he took the sick leave absence. (Credit: Apple Inc.)

Apple is one of the most successful companies around, thanks to its controversial and secretive CEO, Steve Jobs.  How many corporate executives can make a legitimate claim to have reshaped not just one industry but four: computing (the Mac), music (the iPod), mobile communications (the iPhone), and movies (Pixar).

Apple’s success is based on a paranoiac obsession with secrecy which is also part of Jobs’ personality.  We all know about  his mysterious illness which was kept veiled until his figure was so gaunt that an explanation had to be given.  Even his liver transplant in a Tennessee hospital was kept secret until it was leaked by the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Jobs received the liver transplant about two months ago, according to people briefed on the matter by current and former board members. Despite intense interest in Mr. Jobs’s condition among the news media and investors, Apple representatives have declined to address the matter, reciting with maddening discipline only that Mr. Jobs is due back at the company by the end of June.

Few companies, indeed, are more secretive than Apple, or as punitive to those who dare violate the company’s rules on keeping tight control over information. Employees have been fired for leaking news tidbits to outsiders, and the company has been known to spread disinformation about product plans to its own workers.

“They make everyone super, super paranoid about security,” said Mark Hamblin, who worked on the touch-screen technology for the iPhone and left Apple last year. “I have never seen anything else like it at another company.”

Secrecy at Apple is not just the prevailing communications strategy; it is baked into the corporate culture. Employees working on top-secret projects must pass through a maze of security doors, swiping their badges again and again and finally entering a numeric code to reach their offices, according to one former employee who worked in such areas.

Work spaces are typically monitored by security cameras, this employee said. Some Apple workers in the most critical product-testing rooms must cover up devices with black cloaks when they are working on them, and turn on a red warning light when devices are unmasked so that everyone knows to be extra-careful, he said.

Regis McKenna, a well-known Silicon Valley marketing veteran who advised Apple on its media strategy in its early days, said the culture of secrecy had its origin in the release of the first Macintosh, which competitors like Microsoft and Sony knew about before it was unveiled.

“It really started around trying to keep the surprise aspect to product launches, which can have a lot of power,” Mr. McKenna said.

“They don’t communicate. It’s a total black box,” said Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray who has covered Apple for the last five years.

I know that this excessive passion for secrecy is not good for the company in the long run, but I’ll have to admit that secrecy adds surprise and excitement to Apple product announcements.  At Apple events, everybody is sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the final moment when Steve Jobs steps up and says his famous words, “Oh…one more thing,” and then he drops the bomb.  Good Day.

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