Tim Cook’s secret plan

May 31, 2012

His predecessor, the far more reclusive Steve Jobs, also made an appearance at the same D conference, the now famous on-stage interview alongside Bill Gates back in 2007. 

But there are signs Cook will be more public and accessible. He spoke earlier this year, for example, at an investor’s conference, something Jobs would have loathed. He also will undoubtedly take the stage at next month’s WWDC Apple developer’s conference, the kind of Apple-controlled venue favored by Jobs. 

If Cook gets out more than Jobs did in more public venues (like his surprise visit to the Foxconn plant) that will be a plus for Apple users and the industry hoping for clues as to product direction. (While he didn't reveal anything at the Foxconn visit, Cook showed engagement on the important issue of factory conditions there).

Just don’t hope for too many clues; we didn’t get many under Jobs and it looks like Cook wants to outdo his mentor. “We're going to double down on secrecy on products," he said.

Taken literally that comment is borderline frightening. 

Let’s not forget this is the company that brought a criminal investigation against a blogger who wrote about an Apple prototype iPhone he acquired that had been accidentally left behind in a bar by an Apple employee. Apple also sued and shut down the rumor site Think Secret after it published too many reports on what Apple had in the works. 

Apple also demands employees adhere to strict privacy rules including, I’m told, having to sign non-disclosures before certain meetings even when they're on campus and staff only. 

A former Apple manager told me a story about a meeting scheduled in a conference room with Jobs and a few other Apple employees including one who had dialed in from a remote office on speakerphone. “Why’s that thing on?” Jobs allegedly barked when he entered the room. “We don’t even know who’s listening. Shut it off.” 

Is this kind of stuff Cook wants to “double-down” on? 

No one plays ‘I’ve got a secret’ better than Apple

The bottom line is that Apple’s in the driver seat. The iPhone and iPad are selling like crazy and Apple can call its own shots. The ultra-secrecy has worked; Apple seems to have a jump on the rest of the market with every new product release. 

But the key to success isn’t secrecy, it’s creating great products. Apple bet big on Jobs’ gut instinct about what made a great product and his ruthless willingness to discard anything he thought wasn’t. 

That’s a gamble most companies aren’t willing to take. Cook admits he’s not trying to be Steve Jobs and the role of product visionary is now a more shared undertaking. For Apple that means shared internally — no public product road maps and certainly no focus groups. Developers, sworn to secrecy, get some limited previews and that’s about it. 

It’s hard to argue with carrying on Jobs love of secrecy if, for example, that’s what it takes to produce the next great iPad, but does it? We’ll just have to see if Apple's next great unveiling is worth the wait. 


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