Secrecy is dead (or it should be)

I spotted this deliciously acerbic attack on Safari by Lea Verou today.

Which is worse: IE or Safari? Lea Verou says Safari
What is worse: Safari or IE?

I agree. The widespread use of iOS means millions of users are held back from a progressive web by Apple. Or that's how it looks. Either way, this is not a great situation to be in.

I found the above quote via an AMA with Brad Frost. He agrees too. He goes further and states that it's "extremely frustrating that Apple operates in such a black box."

This culture of secrecy that pervades Apple is indeed unhelpful to the web - an open platform should be developed in the open. But besides that, the secrecy is frustrating and unhelpful to their hardware customers too. The recent consternation over the introduction of the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar and the lack of update to the Mac Pro could be almost entirely ameliorated if Apple were more open about their plans. Loyal, professional customers deserve that kind of dialogue, that kind of debate, with Apple out in the open. What's more, it makes things better. I'm not alone in that belief.

What does Apple gain from being so secretive in today's market? Does it really gain a competitive advantage? Really? In the golden-years of iPhone development, one can understand the need for secrecy - there was something to be genuinely secret about there. But now, with incremental updates at best, the black box simply whips up vastly inflated expectations. A simple roadmap would, in contrast, communicate to pro users, "Hey, we've got your back". Above all, it's a show of respect to loyal customers. In a time where trust in brands and politicians is collapsing, I'm surprised Apple isn't thinking differently. Does it not need the bold leadership of another Jobs if not for now but for the long term? Does it not need someone to say, we need to adapt? Time will tell.

The book Team of Teams, by General Stanley McChrystal, discusses a different approach. Instead of a need-to-know culture, he advocates for an everyone-should-know open culture. It makes things better. This is radical thinking for the domain McChrystal inhabited: the US military, which is the very embodiment of hierarchy and need-to-know. The book makes a compelling argument and you can see echos of the problems McChrystal sets out to address in the current bad feeling towards Apple.

In contrast, the startup Pearl, founded by ex-Apple employees, aims to take that trademark Apple quality and attention to detail, but get rid of the secrecy. The New York Times featured a piece about them recently. It's well worth reading. It's a great example of the lessons General McChrystal espouses. In fact, it could be the perfect case-study of the sort of decentralised, empowered, open, agile operation he describes. But, again, time will tell - Pearl have yet to truly prove themselves. Yet according to the people who work there, it's liberating.

“It’s very liberating to know what’s going on,” said Mr. Latimer, who left Apple in May to join Pearl. “Everyone is contributing here, so everyone has a need to know.”

That's Brian Latimer, once in charge of protecting some of the Apple's deepest secrets.

It's been successful at recruiting Apple talent, too:

Pearl, which is led by Bryson Gardner, has recruited heavily from Apple. More than 50 of Pearl’s 80 or so employees worked for the Cupertino, Calif., tech giant at some point.

Although Apple pays very well, many of the Apple recruits had gotten bored cranking out incremental improvements to the iPhone and the Mac, said Brian Sander, Pearl’s co-founder and chief operating officer. “They were vibrating. It was time for them to do something different,” he said.

Clearly - clearly - people, especially the younger generations working in tech, yearn to talk about what they're working on. It's part of the culture. It makes things better. And yet Apple stands resolutely apart from this openness despite what looks increasingly like an anachronistic cult of secrecy. How long will high-end remuneration work to soothe the frustration of being gagged? Perhaps for a long while yet if it has exciting products in the pipeline. But for incremental updates? I'm not so sure. Whether it makes Apple products better or worse is besides the point - it's a perception thing. Apple really don't want to be perceived as anachronistic. It's not good for business. It'll be interesting to see how it responds.