Apple’s extreme secrecy: They’re shooting themselves in the foot

apple-glassApple has been well known in the last decade for being able to create an absolute frenzy leading up to a release of a new phone/iDevice. What began as a handful of excited rumors on tech blogs a month or so before a launch became internet wide speculation just a few weeks after the newest device was released. Their PR and marketing team is clearly top notch, and they have been largely successful at creating the demand before their products are ever released.

However, in this post-Jobs era, is their traditional model of tight lipped secrecy and slow drip release schedules really paying off?

Why the secrecy?

As anyone knows, a tech company can’t exactly go around describing what they are building piece by piece. Their R&D teams work very hard to develop new processes, new designs, and new hardware/software relationships that will “wow” the user. Apple is no different, but what is significantly different about them is their secrecy and their release schedule.

How secrecy played a role

One of the things that made this approach so unbelievably successful was the cult-like secrecy that Apple is known for. This created an atmosphere that the new iPhone would be so incredible that an employee would literally be fired on the spot for speaking just one word about it. It gave Apple products the air of being a “forbidden fruit” and that on the day Apple chose, we would all be exposed to this incredible new advancement of technology.

Is this secrecy still necessary?

We all know that most tech companies have a pipeline of new products for a year or two in advance. It would certainly be suicide for Apple to start describing it’s iPhone 6 before a 5S is even out, but is leaking absolutely nothing still working?

Steve Jobs was notorious for not saying a thing about an upcoming product, except that it will be incredible. For the years that Apple was experiencing a meteoric rise, this was acceptable and even played to create the hype around the phone.

These days, I’m not so sure that this is working. In other companies such as Google or Samsung, you see what they are working on, many of their top employees are excited to discuss it, and you want to share in that enthusiasm. The Apple secrecy has made them impersonal, makes them seem more shut off and like prodigy egoist that don’t want to speak of things the public won’t understand.

How release schedules have built Apple

Using regular releases to create anticipation

One of the best marketing tools Apple ever created was the regular yearly release schedule. With their iPods, iPhones, and iPads, they initially followed a predictable pattern of release dates that kept consumers on their toes. Always knowing that a new phone would be coming out in a year had consumers constantly looking for the “next big thing” and it also gave them confidence that they could wait a year for the next device and have a good phone to upgrade to. What this created was a feeling of newness and more importantly, a feeling of reliability.

Year in and year out, you could count on iPhone releases being in the middle of the year around June or July, and you could get yourself excited and feel months of anticipation building up. The new phone would come out, it would be an improvement over the last, you can use your upgrade and know when the next iPhone will come out for you to replace your current one. Life was good.

Why have these methods broken down?

It’s kind of strange to look back on the beginning success years of the iPhone and think that now, some of the ways that Apple made it so popular are what is actually causing them the biggest problems now. While secrecy and a release schedules kept customers excited and looking forward to their products, it doesn’t exactly have the same effects as it used to. Why is that?

Competitors

Probably the biggest reason why Apple can no longer afford to release one phone a year and hope people worship it is because there are too many other competitors that have finally caught up, and in some cases surpassed, the quality and experience that Apple provides.

If you remember the first days of the iPhone, or should I say the first years of the iPhone, competition was positively laughable. I remember the rumors while I worked at the Apple store, every other month was “XYZ phone company is coming out with a new touch screen phone to challenge the iPhone!” Every new one was supposed to be an “iPhone Killer.” I was always curious what the competition would bring, so I would go play with the phones when they were released… and I would walk out of Verizon or AT&T shaking my head. The touchscreen, the most basic thing about the phone that  needed to work flawlessly, was laggy, slow, and unusable. Regardless of software or a device/company ecosystem, if every time you tapped the screen it registered 50% of your taps and slowly at that, the phone was doomed from the beginning.

Obviously, this is not the case anymore. Plenty of companies have caught up technologically, and they are starting to out produce and more importantly, out-innovate Apple. Companies like Samsung have begun trying futuristic technology like motion control, IR Remote, and screens that quite frankly shame the “Retina Display.” Even from a design standpoint, the HTC One has challenged Apple in the area they have been known as the undisputed king. I want that phone, I want it because it’s gorgeous. Apple used to be the only company that could provide that.

Release schedules are now tearing them down

The past release schedule gimmick is unfortunately not cutting it anymore. I believe this happened for a few reasons, mainly:

  • Competitors are just releasing more phones at many price points and flooding the smartphone market
  • The release schedule creates anticipation and expectation, and it is only successful if you meet expectations
  • Apple has stopped being reliable with their release schedule. The last few years it was pushed back to the Fall

Let’s take a long at these things individually:

Quantity

With other companies releasing phone after phone, Apple just can’t stand to release one phone a year (let alone one every 1.5 years). This has been a long contested point about what Apple is as a company, and whether it’s model makes sense, but the pressure is much higher than it ever was.

What Apple created was a premium market, a high-end smartphone that delivered on everything that you can want, and it was way ahead of its time. However, now that there are so many other options, and the “smartphone” is the normal phone that people buy, Apple is just drowning in the offerings. It still has the power to bust through, but it needs….

Innovation

If anyone is looking forward to Apple’s products, it’s me. I worked there for two years, I am part of an Apple family that has had Macs since I was 10. However, the iPhone 5 release was immensely boring and disappointing to me, and it was the last straw to push me to look at all the alternatives and switch back to Android. That’s scary, because I want to like Apple products, I really do. It’s just that they haven’t been pushing the envelope. They released incremental updates 2 years in a row, and that is just too long in the tech world. While in and of itself, this isn’t necessary the problem, what really combines with it and creates a perfect storm is the…

Release Schedule

As a marketing tool, this has been incredibly successful and created demand and anticipation any other company would kill for. However, with that comes the pressure and responsibility of the company to meet that demand and excitementWhen I worked at Apple, one of the most common mantras was “under promise, over deliver.” Ironically, what their marketing and image has done in recent years is “over promise, under deliver.” To be fairs, rumors for iPhone generally range from better screen to cooks you breakfast in the morning, but until the 4s/5, they were able to meet or exceed expectations. Right now, they just aren’t producing the products that live up to the hype.

What really sapped me of hope was the break of their generally reliable model of: Major update -> Incremental update -> Major update. For example, iPhone 3G -> iPhone 3GS -> iPhone 4 -> iPhone 4S. It was a good model, two years to create incredible advances, and one year to incrementally improve on was was usually the best phone out there. However with the iPhone 5, it seems like a second incremental increase to the iPhone 4. There was nothing groundbreaking, nothing surprising, nothing unexpected. The “one more thing” died with the iPhone 5.

Additionally, they have been taking longer to release the phones. With the release schedule very uncertain at this point, people are genuinely trying to guess Summer or Fall. This injects uncertainty in an already frustrated fan base, and I believe it pushes customers to jump ship to competitors offerings. At this point, would you rather wait around for a potentially disappointing incremental upgrade that might make you wait until Fall anyway, or would you rather take advantage of the newest and most innovative smartphones coming from the Android market?

Final thoughts

The hazy cloud that surrounds controversies like this is the question of: is this all because Steve Jobs is no longer at the helm? I won’t discuss this here, but I do have to say, since he has left, that little extra something that Apple throws to its loyal fans seems to have disappeared with him. Whether the innovation and “over deliver” will return any time soon is up for debate. The problem with the model Apple has built is that it has become it’s own enemy. The slow release date created their image of “exclusive, premium, ground breaking” products. However, now they aren’t the only ones, and if they speed up releases they could anger customers and lose their special feel (see the 4th generation iPad).

Apple has to change something, and I would bet on tightening up their release schedule again, under promising while over delivering, and packing every piece of technology they can into a phone. Back to the basics, but without the cockiness and air that nobody else can come close. They can’t afford to smugly wait a year to release new technologies anymore, they have to attack because they are no longer in the position to just defend.

Image credit: Marco Paköeningrat

  • http://www.geocities.ws/thezipguy zipguy

    I agree! and… Most Apple products are more expensive! All Apple products are more “exclusive”, including Phones, Tablets, Laptops and Desktops.

    If you’re more pricey, then you’ve got to be better!

    Apple currently runs on Intel CPU’s, with Linux, hidden under the hood, from version X on!