Does the Apple secrecy machine really make people want to buy the company's stuff?

Media criticism.
April 20 2010 6:19 PM

The Apple Secrecy Machine

Does it really make people want to buy stuff?

iPhones. Click image to expand.
The new and old iPhones

Gizmodo has tallied more than 7 million page views (and counting) this week for its coverage of the supersecret, forthcoming version of the iPhone that it purchased from a source who found it abandoned in a Redwood City, Calif., beer garden.

The noise generated by the scoop has spanned all media, but it's hard to fathom the intense interest in the not-yet-released device unless you're a member of the Apple cult. All the new iPhone seems able to do is what the current iPhone does, except it does so a little better and is a little slimmer.

The public's curiosity about all things Apple obviously has something to do with the cone of secrecy the company places over its future products. It defiantly refuses to comment on rumors or its intentions when asked by the press, it leaks selectively to receptive news organizations, and it withholds as much information about a new product as it can until announcement day, when a Steve Jobs presentation attempts to maximize the media impact and stimulate sales.

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But it's difficult to tease out whether Apple products are a hit because of the secrecy or despite it. There are almost as many Apple products that have soared (iPhone, iPod, iMac, etc.) after their tightly scripted releases as have stumbled (MacBook Air, Apple TV, G4 Cube, etc.).

One reason Apple maintains secrecy about its products is that it can. None of its competitors—Microsoft, HP, Google, Dell, Toshiba—sells both hardware and software across the entire personal-computing/entertainment/communication categories. So when Apple decides to build a new Macintosh or a new software product, it doesn't have to enlist as many business partners who might gossip about it. Oh, in selling something like the original iPod and the new iPad, Apple has to recruit "content providers" from music and publishing as partners, but the content providers' role in designing and launching those devices was minimal, making their mouths easily glued shut with nondisclosure agreements.

But if tightly scripted product releases were the key to sales, Dean Kamen would have moved a billion Segways after Time toasted the vehicle in December 2001 with a cover story echoed by every media organization in the country. Or, considering a more recent product flop, how about the highly orchestrated spring 2009 launch of the Wolfram Alpha computational search engine, which a headline in the U.K.'s Independent said was "An Invention That Could Change the Internet For Ever"? Spent much time Wolfram Alphaing lately?

Although Apple expends a lot of effort keeping its product plans secret, the tech press does a fairly good job of figuring out what the company is up to. For instance, you can't gear up to produce a million iPads without placing advance orders for the millions of dollars in components. And when you do, as Apple did last summer for the iPad, the press can figure out what the device will probably look like and how it will function. Speaking to Computerworld last summer, analyst Ezra Gottheil said of the forthcoming Apple tablet:

Think of this not as a PC, but as a device, as an appliance that can do the things netbooks do, like checking e-mail and browsing the Web. But you don't compare it to a netbook. I think this will use something more like the iPhone operating system than the Mac OS and it will have something like the App Store.

Pretty prescient, eh? But Gottheil isn't the only figure gazing into the crystal ball. The Mac Rumors buyer's guide extrapolates from rumors, speculation, and previous Apple product cycles to predict which of the company's products will be refreshed or replaced and when. (I never contemplate purchasing an Apple product without consulting the Mac Rumors guide.)

How you relate to Apple secrecy may have a lot to do with how you relate to Apple products in the first place. It's clear the publicity countdown Apple created for the iPad generated the sales of 450,000 of the devices in its opening week, but who were the most eager buyers? As you might expect, the earliest adopters were devoted Apple customers already, according to PC World. About two-thirds of purchasers already owned iPhones, and about three-quarters of them used Macs regularly. In my neighborhood, there were lines to buy the iPad at the Apple Store the day it went on sale. Across the street at the Best Buy, there were no lines at all.

If the secrecy pixie dust that Apple sprinkles onto its products works best on people who already believe in Apple magic, then the real test of the company's marketing machine would be to drive the astronomically larger customer base of Windows users into the stores to buy iPads. To do that, the company would have to leave its secrecy comfort zone. It would have to be more forthcoming about what the product does and why you should buy it. And finally, if Apple's secrecy strategy is so effective, why don't more manufacturers ape it?

Apple-style secrecy may help drive some sales, but ultimately it's the usefulness, durability, affordability, and availability of a product that play the greatest roles in sales. Being a rational man who appreciates the scientific method, Steve Jobs might want to consider dumping the pixie dust for one product cycle and see if that strategy increases sales.

******

If Apple released a new version of the Edsel, I'm sure that most of the buyers would be Mac-heads. Send your denunciations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and follow my Twitter feed where I reveal a secret every day. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word secrecy in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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