Apple Computers recent out-of-court settlement with a former employee who leaked details of its forthcoming hardware to the Web started me thinking again about a topic thats as old as the Mac itself: When does Apples legendary veil of secrecy begin to stifle - rather than protect - product innovation?
Before I continue this line of questioning and usher in a reader dog pile, let me make one obvious fact even clearer: My perspective on Apples privacy policies is far from unbiased.
Having tracked and broken scoops about Apples products and business moves for more than a decade, Ive benefited enormously from breaches in the companys cone of silence. Whether the subject was new laser printers, PowerBooks or operating system (OS) software, my success has been based in large part upon my ability to wriggle through these gaps. Im not just a commentator on Apple leaks - Im also a conduit.
At the same time that I readily admit its in my best interest to winnow out tangible evidence about Apples future directions, I acknowledge that Apple has an interest in channeling the flow of this information. This is the company that brought "event marketing" to the realm of high-tech; under CEO Steve Jobs stewardship, Apple has perfected the Big Bang theory of product introductions. Its not surprising, then, that the company is motivated to keep its powder dry between rollouts.
Nevertheless, there are moments when even the most passionate defenders of the corporate crown jewels must question the wisdom of Apples fortress mentality.
Example One: Apple is on the verge of releasing Mac OS X version 10.1 - code-named Puma - the first major tweak to its next-generation OS since its official March 24 debut. Jobs made much of the upgrade during his keynote presentation at Julys Macworld Expo in New York. On the show floor--and in backstage meetings with the press--staffers cheerfully demonstrated how Mac OS X 10.1 will enhance the new OS interface and fill significant gaps, such as long-awaited support for native DVD playback.
Apple has laid its cards on the table when it comes to Pumas enhancements; nevertheless, third-party developers report that - at least until very recently - the company has been extremely reluctant to pass along beta versions of this imminent upgrade.
While some squeaky wheels have been greased, theres been no systemic distribution of Mac OS X version 10.1 to certified Apple developers. The perceived wisdom is that, while Apples engineering teams recognize the importance of allowing vendors to test compatibility with their wares, the companys marketing department - stung by Web leaks of a couple of Puma builds - has been concerned about the possibility that more recent betas will fall into unauthorized hands.
Now, call me unimaginative, but I frankly have a hard time following this logic. Granted, these builds still have holes through which a moderately determined user could drive a small truck, and my sources tell me that Pumas performance is still a ways from where Apple wants it. But thats why they call it "prerelease," isnt it? Apple has already spelled out the top features on tap for OSX version 10.1; there are no big surprises that will be compromised if the youth of America manages to pilfer a beta or two.
And given the formidable list of known bugs still being swatted at chez Apple, theres no way any sane end user will load one of these samizdat OS builds for day-to-day work. Besides, the professional developers who actually need to suss out how products work and play with the upgrade view these leaked betas as an extreme sport - not as a viable option for accomplishing actual work.
My latest intelligence indicates that Apple may be loosening the sash on its titanium kimono and making Puma betas available to the wider developer community. If it does, in fact, reflect a change of heart, its an eminently sound decision that recognizes the importance of the sort of testing that beta seeds are intended to provide.
Example Two: As reported by MacNN and other Web sites, Apple has quietly pulled the plug on its Customer Quality Feedback (CQF) program, which for years provided top Mac sites with the early seeds of Apple hardware and software.
Under Jobs, the CQF program has been on the wane - Apple stopped sending out hardware evaluation units before the advent of the iMac - and last week, the company cut it off completely. The general consensus is that the program couldnt function under the sort of tight security restrictions that Jobs Apple has imposed.
Here was the description of the CQF program that appeared until recently on Apples developer resource pages: "CQF is an Apple program that provides end users with an opportunity to influence the development of Apple hardware and software products worldwide. By evaluating Apple products early in the development cycle, customers are able to provide crucial data to the project development teams in a timely manner.
"This data includes comments about the human interface, desired features, performance, and compatibility with Apple and third-party products in time to help improve the shipping product."
Given Apples profound disappointment over sales of the Power Mac G4 Cube - a worthy desktop design that ran aground over some annoying quality assurance issues, relatively steep prices and an inability to connect with a distinct market - the CQF programs charter would seem more relevant than ever.
Although their agendas differ profoundly, Apple, its development partners, and the publishers and consumers of unauthorized Mac dish are unified by their passionate interest in the platforms continued success. Apple should draw succor from tremendous goodwill when charting a course between secrecy and real-world feedback.
Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is vendor analyst of Ziff Davis Medias forthcoming Baseline magazine.