Apple Can’t Keep a Secret

| The Devil's Advocate

Let me give you the tl;dr right up front. Apple can't keep a secret, and hasn't been able to for a long time.

Anyone that watches Apple, knows, deep down, this is true. I roll my eyes every time Tim Cook or other Apple wonk knowingly smiles and tries to feign a twinkle in their eye, and say they "don't comment on future products"—yea, that's because everyone else does, so they don't need to bother. As such, Apple should just give up on its pretense of secrecy. I know I have.


It's been forever since Apple has actually surprised us with a secret it could keep. Basically, almost every hardware update is known about with morbid accuracy well in advance of any announcements mostly because Apple's Chinese suppliers leak everything. One need only visit MacRumors (et al.) to confirm this is true. iPhone case manufacturers leak design details for crying out loud. Really!?! Case manufacturers!

A surprise these days, is the exception, not the norm, but this wasn't the case back during the Steve Jobs era. Steve knew how to control these leaks better. Remember when ATI leaked that it would be supplying a video card for the iMac a day early? No one really cared about it, but Steve did. He put them on a black list and stopped using them as a vendor to punish them for a few iterations. Yea, they kept their pie holes shut after that.

But no one at Apple seems to have the needed "asshole" and/or "vindictive" gene, much less vision to keep similar order. Well, except for crazy-eye Scott Forstall, but he's been ousted and relegated to wasting his tech acumen on producing broadway musicals, so that Apple could enter its kinder-and-gentler era. How sad.

Anyway, what's worse is that at least Apple could try to surprise us with software (since the Chinese supply chain shouldn't be able to leak that), but the company doesn't do that either. Most software features leak today as well. Partly, from developers that are too sloppy or lazy to remove details of the features in betas (including hardware releases), but, mostly, I suspect, because Apple has just resumed being a ship that leaks form the top.

Yesterday we heard rumor of Apple letting developers have third party integration with Siri along with an Amazon-Echo-like device. This would have been a great surprise announcement for WWDC, but not anymore. The inability to surprise just adds to the perception that Apple keynotes are becoming snoozefests.

Of course there are exceptions. The trashcan Mac Pro was a surprise, but it took Apple building a new freak'n plant in the U.S. and a six-month lead time till release to keep that under wraps. Also, even Steve Jobs had leaks, like the famous 'iPhone 4 lost in a bar' fiasco (although that supports the point of how draconian he was willing to be with police and goon intimidation worthy of a spy novel). But these are exceptions to the rule, which currently is, Apple can't keep a freak'n secret to save its life.

Apple needs to put up and actually surprise us, or shut up about its supposed "culture of secrecy," because right now, it comes off like they're talking to their imaginary friend. But I'm not holding my breath.

So since Apple cannot actually keep a secret anymore, with rare exception, it's time it stopped bothering. Why keep up the pretense. The management is too spineless to actually punish the leakers like Steve Jobs did. The only by-product is uncertainty that Wall Street punishes them for, and a huge waste of expense on security within the company that just hassles people.

Furthermore, it's far past time for the press to stop pretending like Apple can actually keep a secret, and treat such claims as laughable.

At this point, the only secret Apple is maintaining is its farcical portrayed "belief" that it can still keep a secret.

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You nailed this one. The difference between Steve and Tim on secrecy was apparent early on once Tim took the reigns. This may seem like an irrelevant issue; but when you are involved in big stake negotiations those loose lips can sink the ship.


I wonder…
I hear and read a fair amount how Apple cannot innovate any more. How Apple is playing catch up.
Could part of it be that Apple used to surprise us with cool stuff. Now nothing is a surprise. Everything is well known and a bit boring by the time they release it. Also Samsung hear the same rumours and have their copy machines running overtime. Apple used to be able to release something and have a few months window before the copycats caught up. Now they sometimes beat Apple to market with ideas they got from Apple..

John Kheit

Yea, I fear it will get slightly worse before it gets better.  My hope and understanding from little birdies is that at least the iPhone “S” cycle is coming to an end.  Hopefully the understand the perception issue and things will ramp up on the innovation/perception side of things.


The management is too spineless to actually punish the leakers like Steve Jobs did.

Perhaps it’s hard enough to keep talented staff at Apple without firing someone for leaking, with the negative impact that could have on coworkers.

And the leaks may prop up the stock price and keep investors interested and calm.


Yep, the rumor sites were full of talk of Swift before it launched.

Now being honest there has been alot of leaks but most are due to the fact that Apples supply chain is so huge, it’s impossible. The only chance to truly keep the secrets now is for Apple to do everything themselves with robots, but even then people love to sell secrets (and sometimes Apple loves to leak them intentionally).



Nicely articulated.

Let’s assume that your argument is entirely correct (evidence supports it). One can argue, so what?

As you’ve rightly pointed out, it can turn product announcements into a snooze-fest for the echo chamber, but does it materially affect the lay public, as in purchasing and adoption behaviour? I don’t know that we have any data.

As @geoduck argues, it could provide the competition with opportunity to fire up their copiers, but where is the evidence that any of these leaks:

1) resulted in a competitor altering course to intercept the Enterprise, or

2) materially affected Apple’s market performance (sales, profits, market share, etc)

I suggest, in trying to determine if secrecy is either meaningful or has been meaningfully compromised:

First, public non-confirmation of a rumour is not the same as insisting that secrecy is maintained. Think of the intelligence community’s oft-repeated refrain: We can neither confirm nor deny…One should not underestimate the power of non-confirmation or plausible deniability e.g. ‘We never said we’d do X, Y or Z’. We’ve seen this with product releases when rumours went sideways.

Second, not all leaks are created equal. Indeed, intelligence communities have exploited institutional leakiness to their advantage by contaminating the leak pool with crafted misdirection (this has been going on for centuries). If one can’t stop the leak, one can at least inject sufficient doubt as to keep the completion guessing or exploit it to lead them down the wrong path (Allies vs Germany, D-Day). Are we certain Apple are not playing this game?

Third, not all products are equally leaky nor are they equally sensitive to leaks. This may be correlated with product maturity. Take the car, for example. Everyone knows that Apple are working on a car. Speculation abounds but facts are few. Remember the lead up to the Apple Watch. There were rumours aplenty, but the product whole surpassed the sum of its parts on rollout, and there was nothing comparable on the market. With a mature product like the iPhone, even an illiterate farmer in Chandpur can figure out that if last year Apple used the A9 chipset, next year they’ll use the A10. Even if the competition know this, it does not mean that they know what that means. Recall, even Samsung, whose chip division manufactured them, were caught flat-footed, along with the entire industry, when Apple’s iOS chipsets went 64-bit. Despite their foreknowledge of a new chip, they didn’t see that coming.   

Finally, for a tech giant with a global footprint, what does secrecy even mean? Once we descry a pattern of behaviour, we come to anticipate broad features (a new iPhone every year) and even a few specifics (camera specs, yawn). The real issue for the company at any rate is not whether or not the public know the broad picture, but do the competition or other hostiles know industrial secrets such that they can steal and manufacture that product? In my view, this is where it counts, and not whether or not the fanbase has figured out a few factoids.

In sum, secrecy is an art whose execution is subtle, abstruse and whose impact is not always as it seems at first blush, but when meaningfully compromised, results in real harm done. I’m not sure that boredom qualifies.

John Kheit

Thanks wab95.  I hear you, andy you make a lot of good points on ameliorating the value failing at keeping secrets. I agree with a lot of this to some degree, but Apple itself has argued that secrecy is valuable.  All their key passes, fogged internal windows, etc., guards to prevent access to secret items, argues that there is value to it.  There is value to keeping the competition guessing till later, so that Apple enjoys more time before they are copy-catted.  And Apple and its executives have gone on record, Tim Cook in particular, that keeping a secret has market impact worth a lot of money.  Meaning the ‘shock’ of the ‘reveal’ creates so much buzz, that Apple enjoys a lot of free and positive marketing (mostly because they get to control the narrative, rather than leaks weeks ahead of time bemoaning how ‘lame’ a feature is, for example).

tl;dr if the secrecy isn’t valuable, then Apple shouldn’t bother.  But since they themselves say it’s valuable, then they are utterly failing at achieving something they value.



Good points, as ever.

Many thanks.

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