Apple’s Secrets Aren’t So Secret Anymore, and That’s O.K.

Surprises about different products are nice, but they aren't the ultimate goal if the idea is to sell lots and lots of gadgets

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Would it be possible for an intelligent bystander with no insider knowledge to write an imaginary script for an Apple media event — a day or two ahead of time — and mostly get it right?

In the case of yesterday’s iPhone 5 event, that’s an easy call: yes, it would have been doable. In recent weeks, nearly every significant bit of news about the new iPhone, iPods and related products got leaked one way or another. By the night before the launch, even trivia like the name of the new earbuds (EarPods) was known.

Yes, there was some misleading scuttlebutt along the way: the new iPhone, it turns out, doesn’t have near-field communication after all. But anyone with well-informed instincts about what Apple is and isn’t likely to do could have discarded the stuff that sounded improbable.

Really, the one thing that nearly anyone would have gotten wrong was the order of the announcements. Apple unveiled the iPhone 5 and then moved on to iPods and iTunes. That’s the reverse of its traditional “One More Thing” game plan.

Apple may have a reputation as the most obsessively secretive company in the business — maybe any business — but if its goal was to keep its latest products under wraps until it could tell the world about them, then it failed.

That’s not new. Most of the major news about Apple products manage to ooze out ahead of time. It’s simply not feasible to keep hardware-related news from doing so, particularly in an era in which tech companies don’t manufacture their own products.

(Software is easier to keep hush-hush: earlier this year, nobody reported much of anything about OS X’s Mountain Lion upgrade until Apple decided it was time.)

The fact that yesterday’s bash wasn’t full of startling twists presumably helps explain why it prompted lots of stories declaring the event, and even the iPhone 5 itself, to be a disappointment.

Product rollouts aren’t action movies. Surprises are nice, but they aren’t the ultimate goal — at least if the idea is to sell lots and lots of gadgets and make lots and lots of money.

Surprise has no inherent relation to quality or popularity. I was more surprised by Samsung’s decision to give the Galaxy Note II a whopping 14-cm screen than I was by anything Apple announced yesterday, but that doesn’t mean that Samsung made the right decision or that the Note II will do better than the iPhone 5.

And actually, there are plenty of instances in which the least surprising news is the most important news. The iPhone 5 is the first iPhone with LTE broadband. That’s not surprising in the least; Apple is so very late to the LTE party that it would have been stunning if the phone hadn’t added it. Even so, LTE also happens to be the most logical reason to upgrade from an earlier iPhone to this one. Its obviousness is a virtue.

When consumers decide whether or not to buy an iPhone 5, will they factor in the fact that Apple’s launch event felt a bit like a recap of known facts? That would be kind of silly. (I also suspect that only a tiny percentage of the hundreds of millions of people who might buy an iPhone 5 have been paying enough attention that they knew much about the phone before it was announced.)

Surprises are fun. They can certainly help products get off to a good start when it’s not a given that the world is paying attention. (Apple, in case you don’t know, doesn’t have to deal with that problem.) But if Apple ever builds an iPhone that’s a flop in the market, it won’t have anything to do with how well the company kept it secret. It’ll be because it misjudged what people want in a smart phone. From what we know about the iPhone 5, there’s absolutely no evidence that it’s the product of poor judgment about what consumers want and need.