Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Apple’s Fetish For Secrecy

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Quora is a fantastic site in which members ask questions of experts in various fields, and for the past year or so, there’s an absolute fantastic thread going asking about how Apple keeps its secrets… and it contains not only some fantastic insight there on what lengths Apple will go to be secretive about new products, but about how information on new products leaks… like, say, the time the Pentagon leaked the 1998 iMac to the world.

The whole thread has a lot of juicy bits (via TUAW, like this quote from ex-NeXT-er Ken Rosen on Steve Jobs’s philosophy on secrecy in NeXT:

In the early days, everything was open to everyone. There was even a binder in the CFO’s office with everyone’s salary. We were told we could go check it out any time. Few cared to. Steve told us, “Inside NeXT, everything is open. Outside NeXT, we say nothing.” In wonderful Steve fashion, he added, “This will continue until the first leak. As soon as we prove we can’t keep a secret, we go back to being like every other company.” No one wanted to be the one to kill the open goose.

Here’s one from an anonymous Apple employee on how products are tracked:

All prototypes are laser marked with serial numbers and tracked by a central tracking system (called iTrack). Physical security is also highly prioritized, with prototypes required to be locked up when not in use. Access to prototypes is also restricted, and the default assumption within the company is that your coworkers do not know what you’re working on.

Physical access to the areas of certain groups (product design, industrial design, and reliability) is highly restricted by badge access. The most sensitive areas, such as the Industrial Design Studio, have receptionists, external cameras to screen guests, and require an escort to vouch for you. Within these areas and groups, knowledge of the product pipeline and access to prototypes is widespread, but that knowledge doesn’t leave the group.

And here’s how the Pentagon leaked the iMac G3 back in 1998, straight from the editor of MacUser UK back in the 1990s, Adam Banks:

I was editing MacUser (UK) in 1998 when rumours surfaced that Apple was working on a completely new kind of Mac. By a series of flukes, we became the first magazine to print what turned out to be a pretty accurate description of the machine a couple of months ahead of its launch as the iMac. We got the details from someone who worked at a third party site where Apple had seeded a test unit.

Probably safe by now to mention what the site was. It was the Pentagon. Compared to the real secrets they were keeping, when it came to some plastic PC they’d been asked not to talk about, I suspect nobody gave a shit.

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  • Steffen Jobbs

    Samsung might not know what Apple is doing ahead of time but Samsung can still purchase an Apple product as soon as it goes on sale, copy it and have a duplicated product ready for sale within a couple of months which is pretty darn fast. Apple is probably just wasting its time with all that secrecy. As far as Wall Street is concerned, Samsung already builds better smartphones than Apple so there isn’t anything worth copying from Apple.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his girlfriend and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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