Apple likes to keep things schtum. When you walk into an Apple Store to buy your brand new iProduct, chances are it didn’t officially exist the day or the week before. This is unusual in the tech world, and that’s probably because it’s pretty bloody hard to keep these things under wraps. Still, Apple tries all the same, because the buzz that a secret generates is impossible to recreate when a launch is long and drawn out.
And, more importantly, you love it. The secrecy game twiddles with your brain bits in such a way as to get you out of bed and into line outside the store when you might otherwise not. The question is: is it all worth the effort?
The truth will out
“We’re doubling down on secrecy,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook at this year’s D: All Things Digital conference. And he meant it. On Monday, ArsTechnica posted a feature explaining that sources inside Apple had (somewhat ironically) revealed under anonymity that things were tighter than ever inside the Cupertino HQ. New products now have to be carried around under black cloth, as if they’ll melt in the sunlight.
And yet, things still leak. Howzat? Well, you can be tighter than the arse on Scrooge McDuck, but if your supply chain resides on a different continent, your grip can’t help but weaken. And that’s the problem here: Apple’s shiny things are made in China, and that end of things tends to be a lot looser in the lip area.
That’s why the iPhone 5 was no real surprise: we’d all seen its chassis and innards months in advance. They sprang up on shady videos and in teardowns. You never know whether to trust these sources fully, but when multiple pics of the same thing start appearing from different corners of China, you can fairly safely assume that you know what’s coming.
Prior to last night’s launch, leaks for the iPad mini had been a bit less concrete, but there were leaks – we all knew that it was coming, and had done for months. And this wasn’t from analyst guesswork – the iPad mini rumours all emanated from the source in China. The iPad mini wasn’t a surprise.
Leaky leaky drums up buzzy
But, all is not as it appears. For every three leaks that Apple wishes hadn’t happened, and every iPhone 4 prototype that stays for one extra pint as its owner goes home, there’s one or two that Apple will have orchestrated.
The Wall Street Journal is the place to go for these such ‘mistakes’: the publication has a special relationship with Apple, akin to the UK’s with America. i.e. No one invades each other, we invite each other round for tea and there’s also a secret club handshake.
For the WSJ, the handshake is an exchange of information for buzz; Apple drip feeds info and the WSJ publishes it, thus seeding the entire tech news world with the same story. Sure, some are red herrings, but enough wild tales are true to keep people chomping at Apple’s bit.
It’s half misdirection and half Pavlovian conditioning, and it ensures that there’s always a healthy stream of tiny particles of news floating about ahead of a product launch.
Ok, so Apple does let some secrets spill, and it keeps others safe. And, above all else, it tries to keep us guessing. Why? Simple, really: you are a human person with a human brain, and you feed on excitement.
Let’s look at the alternative angle.
Earlier this year, Microsoft announced its own tablet: the Surface. It was unveiled at a glossy keynote that took place in June. It’s now late October, and the thing still isn’t on sale.
In Apple time, that four month gap is basically a whole product cycle. It’s madness, but Microsoft is hardly alone in this. Most mobile phone manufacturers, as well as the vast majority of computer and tablet vendors, announce their wares months in advance as standard practice.
And, really, they are fundamentally misunderstanding the benefits in Apple’s methods.
When the Surface debuted, it was a complete surprise. No one expected it. No parts had leaked. No one knew it was coming. But that’s not difficult to achieve when you announce the thing the nanosecond it rolls off the last conveyer belt.
It’s easy to keep secrets on that time frame. If you announce something as soon as you can, but actually release it several months later, what have you achieved? Mild surprise, followed by dwindling interest. And then at the point of launch, a lackluster queue for ‘that thing that they talked about ages ago’ which now feels strangely out of date, even if it’s not.
What Apple does, is to not give that initial interest enough time to burn away. Your interest bubbles because the new iSomething is a secret, and then suddenly, not only is it not secret any more, but it’s on bloody sale next week! Or tomorrow! And you simply must have it! Gaaagh!
The excitable bits of your head get all swept up in the furore. Suddenly, not only do you have to compute the existence of a new thing, you’re watching the adverts for the new thing and you’re having to get in line for it all at once.
The all-powerful buzz
The long and short of it is, well… The difference between the long and short of it – Apple products tend to leak, but that’s because they have a bigger window of time to do so. The iPad mini isn’t only just ready for it’s announcement; it’s only just ready for general release – with all the manufacturing, shipping, pricing agreements and distribution that that entails.
All of that means that Apple devices have to pass through a huge amount of grubby people and grubbier hands, so spilled secrets are inevitable. But the end result is definitely worth it. Apple would rather that you have an inkling of what’s coming, and then have access to it immediately, than to be caught by complete surprise and face a lengthy wait. This is because it knows how the consumer mind works. Or how the brain works full stop.
These delicately maintained secrecy mind games are in place to exploit you, and it works. Apple will continue to run the ‘leaks’ risk forever, because exploiting you always results in huge amounts of buzz, hype and – crucially – sales.