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APPLE'S secret garden
Meet Gray Powell. This 27- year-old Apple software engineer was celebrating his birthday at this German beer garden when he forgot his top-secret, next-generation iPhone prototype at a bar in Redwood City, California, last month. Powell's last Facebook update before he lost his phone — reportedly the next gen iPhone 4G, set for launch in June 2010 — read: "I underestimated how good German beer is. " That was presumably the last time he touched Apple's next big gadget. Tech web site Gizmodo obtained the prototype for $5, 000 from a patron who found the device, and promptly posted its pictures on its front page.
For the people at Apple, it must be like a bad version of the guy walks into a bar joke. Apple is one of the world's coolest companies. But there is one coolcompany trend it has rejected: chatting with the world through blogs and dropping tidbits of information about its inner workings. The company is famous for protecting its new models like state secrets. Its own security department — the Worldwide Loyalty Team — watches over the adherence to this secrecy. Their standing order: No information can be released before Steve Jobs unveils the product.
Few companies, indeed, are more secretive than Apple, or as punitive to those who dare violate the company's rules on keeping tight control over information. Employees have been fired for leaking news tidbits to outsiders, and the company has been known to spread disinformation about product plans to its own workers. "They make everyone super, super paranoid about security, " said Mark Hamblin, who worked on the touch-screen technology for the iPhone and left Apple last year. "I have never seen anything else like it at another company. "
The company is famous for the control it exhibits. Its products, the iPod, iPad, and iPhone, are walled gardens, relying on proprietary software and guarded by guidelines that at times are accused of overreaching. Product announcements, too, occur within a controlled environment, away from the trade shows, at media events choreographed by Jobs and designed to drum up maximum media hype.
Even more firm: the iron grip Apple keeps on unannounced products. The iPad, out last month, was reportedly kept under glass and bolted to a table so it wouldn't walk away while developers worked on it before its release. When Gawker Media in January offered a $100, 000 bounty for evidence of the as-yet unreleased Apple tablet (later revealed as the iPad), Apple was quick to defend its intellectual property, sending a cease-and-desist letter.
In perhaps the most extreme case of the company's culture of secrecy, last summer saw the apparent suicide of a worker for Chinese iPhone manufacturer Foxconn after one of the iPhone prototypes he was tasked with sending to the US never arrived.
Apple's handling of news about the health of its chief executive and co-founder, Steve Jobs, who has battled pancreatic cancer and had a liver transplant while on a leave of absence in 2008, is unparalleled. Jobs received the transplant about two months before the firm officially confirmed the rumours.
Secrecy at Apple is not just the prevailing communications strategy;it is baked into the corporate culture. With rivals looking to get an upper hand by launching similar products days after Apple announces a new gizmo, the firm has a reason to keep a strict vigil. Employees working on Apple's top-secret projects pass through a maze of security doors, swiping their badges again and again and finally entering a numeric code to reach their offices, according to one former employee who worked in such areas.
Work spaces are monitored by security cameras, this employee said. Some Apple workers in the most critical product-testing rooms must cover up devices with black cloaks when they are working on them, and turn on a red warning light when devices are unmasked so that everyone knows to be extra-careful.
Apple employees are often just as surprised about new products as everyone else. "I was at the iPod launch, " said Edward Eigerman, who spent four years as a systems engineer at Apple and now runs his own technology consulting firm. "No one that I worked with saw that coming. " Eigerman was fired from Apple in 2005 when he was implicated in an incident in which a co-worker leaked a preview of some new software to a business customer as a favour. He said Apple routinely tries to find and fire leakers.
Gizmodo, the site which leaked pictures of iPhone 4G, managed to speak briefly to Powell, the man who lost it. They said he sounded "tired and broken" over the phone. There's still no word on his future at Apple. Those German beers are now probably the bitterest Powell ever had. For anyone who has ever lost a cellphone, remember this: it could be much worse.
An Apple employee who goes by the online handle Worker Bee starts posting info and images of upcoming products on the web. His leaks include accurate info on upgraded PowerMacs, iBooks and Apple Pro Mouse. Apple files a lawsuit even before it knows who the guy is — eventually revealed to be a former Apple intern named Juan Gutierrez. The dispute ends in an out-of-court settlement that shuts Gutierrez up
ThinkSecret. com spoils a Steve Jobs keynote's surprises. It says that January's Macworld Expo SF 2005 will feature a $499 Mac with no keyboard or mouse, as well as an office suite called iWork which will feature a new word processor called Pages. The stories are full of little details that turn out to be on the money. A week before the Expo, Apple sues ThinkSecret's proprietor. A settlement is reached and the site shut down
CrunchGear and Gizmodo post spy shots of the alleged new iPod Nano design whose squarish proportions earn it the nickname "Fat Nano". Apple's legal team sends out cease-and-desist letters to the sites, who replace the pictures with artist renderings. Weeks later, Apple unveils the gizmo seen in the spy shots
If Apple issues a cease-and-desist order, you know the product is legit. That is why spy pictures of the unreleased iPhone 3G were met with scepticism. The photo, which turned out to be the real deal, floated around for 67 days before its unveiling — all without a peep from Apple's legal eagles.
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