Apple Needs to Open Up!

May 5th, 2008

Whenever I consider possible future hardware and software from Apple, the well-worn phrase, “We do not discuss unreleased products” comes to mind. Indeed, getting a roadmap of any of their ongoing development programs seldom occurs, and when it does, there’s always a specific marketing reason, or the need to get developers onboard.

Yes, the iPhone was preannounced six months before it went on sale, but not so much because it had to get FCC approval before it went on sale. That would likely have occurred within a few weeks of the actual release, and Apple could have started its publicity push then.

In the case of the iPhone, unlike many other Apple products, there was no danger of gutting sales of a previous model, except for the smartphones manufactured by other companies. Instead, Apple built up months and months of intense anticipation before a single iPhone was sold. Indeed, that’s probably one huge reason why it was a hit from the get-go.

When it comes to the rumored and expected 3G upgrade, well, you know it’ll happen, because AT&T has admitted it. You probably expect the release to coincide with the 2.0 firmware update, but Apple isn’t saying. Indeed, I’m sure they do not want to have folks stop buying current models while they ponder the possibilities.

Even then, don’t forget what Steve Jobs said months ago that existing 3G chips, as of that time, drew too much power, meaning you’d have much less talk and standby time on your iPhone, and that isn’t something to take lightly in exchange for faster Internet speeds. You assume the chips are probably coming online now, but there’s no telling whether Apple can get the quantities they need when they need them.

You wonder, now, why Apple bought PA Semi? Not to revert to the Power PC, but to get the collective genius of a number of processor engineers onboard who might help Apple create the support chips they require for their products without always having to depend on a third party to get their development work completed and ramp up the production lines on schedule.

Now, when it comes to operating systems, Apple will deliver the preliminaries fairly early, because they need to make sure that developers are fully acquainted with the changes and new features. You heard about the iPhone SDK as soon as it was ready to download because Apple needs to offer a rich selection of third-party iPhone apps by late June, when it presents iPhone 2.0. No sense having an Apps Store with little to sell, and I expect there will be hundreds of choices from the first day, perhaps thousands.

However, when Leopard was released, developers reportedly didn’t get their hands on the Golden Master version until after it went on sale. Now I realize Apple may not have had much in the way of lead time from having the upgrade ready for release to getting it into production. At the same time, they could have provided a download version for developers a couple of weeks earlier, thus making it easier for needed third-party software updates to be ready to coincide as close as possible to Leopard’s on-sale date.

Now why would Apple withhold an operating system seed to developers who paid for the program and signed the appropriate nondisclosure agreements?

Why indeed, and it would seem to me that there might be a tinge of paranoia involved, a fear that the software would be pirated. But all that delay does is postpone the inevitable for a couple of weeks, at the expense of inconveniencing legally-contracted developers who only want to make sure their products function reliably with the new operating system.

Does that make sense to you?

In the old days, Apple would even sign up Mac magazine publishers and show them new products under properly-executed confidentiality agreements. That would allow them to post reviews and features on the very day the new product was released. Now here I can see where the tech press of the 21st century may, in some respects, be less trustworthy, so I can understand Apple’s reluctance. In the end, though, they mostly inconvenience customers, particularly business owners who might want to buy the new model but are forced to wait until the reviews are in.

One issue that hurts Apple in the enterprise is that large companies want a vendor’s product roadmap. Other than the exceptions noted above, they won’t get one from Apple. Event marketing and product roadmaps stand at opposite ends of the spectrum. Besides, Apple isn’t catering to big companies. They are doing nicely with consumers and small businesses, and if a large company CEO decides to deploy Macs anyway, all well and good.

I can see Apple’s point, too. There are vultures circling out there, and Apple has gained prominence in large part because they release insanely great new products that defy our expectations. Competitors don’t have time to enter the ring because Apple has already set the bar even higher or moved in a totally different direction, and even the best corporate spies routinely fail at divining their intentions.

At the same time, I think there are areas where Apple can become more forthcoming without hurting their competitive advantage. What do you think?

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5 Responses to “Apple Needs to Open Up!”

  1. Magnus says:

    Apple seems to be doing okay without doing what you suggest, so I’m not sure I see the point, other than that they could potentially do even better. That I can perhaps agree with, but I’m not sure I see the need though. Apple has to keep being different, not just in terms of products, I think, for them to keep being… well, Apple. For them to operate like any other company would not be good. Perhaps there’s some way they can find a happy compromise but I doubt it.

  2. Dana Sutton says:

    It’s hard to criticize Apple’s strategy when they’re doing so much winning. As for the issue creating a buildup of consumer interest in a forthcoming product, they seem quite content to let the rumor sites do the work for them.

  3. Adam says:

    I would add the following:

    If delaying software releases only postpones the inevitable, you can make the argument that delaying announcements/reviews also only displays the inevitable. Apple will still make the sales, just a few days or weeks further on.

    Personally, I hate pre-release product reviews. I have had too much experience with the released product being different from the pre-release units. If it’s not, then it isn’t a pre-release version, the release is just delayed to get the press up to speed. Not a favored approach by early adopters.

  4. Brant says:

    I think Apple’s current strategy is fine. I’ve been a professional Mac developer for 15 years, worked on products I’m sure you’ve heard of. I got to WWDC most years. Obviously I follow Apple very closely.

    I think the benefits they gain are very significant. You can’t buy the kind of press coverage Apple gets for free even if you spent hundreds of millions. I don’t think there is much value in having pre-release reviews. I think clamping way down on new hardware products is helpful because they have been mostly successful in shutting down the rumors sites which is valuable. Apple is so hot right now that I’m even seeing mainstream news outlets pick up on stories from Mac rumor sites, so clamping down on them has a lot of value.

    At the same time, Apple has been more interesting to developers. Sure, we’d all like a better roadmap – it would make it easier to develop for the Mac. However, Apple does give us enough technical information. More importantly they have made the Mac a more attractive platform for developers which makes it easier to justify doing Mac projects in the first place. Don’t underestimate the importance of that.

    If Apple is going to try to be a serious player in the server market or business market, they would have to disclose more, but at this point I’m not sure if that is in the cards. There is certainly an opportunity there – Microsoft is stumbling, and so I’m sure the people at Apple are analyzing that very carefully to see if there is an opening. We’ll see.

    In the mean time, its fun just to sit back, write cool apps for the Mac, and continue to be surprised and excited when Apple does something awesome.

  5. andy says:

    It certainly makes sense that Apple would want to be able to have the parts they need without relying on third parties who have let them down before.

    I just don’t understand this ‘enterprise’ thing about needing a product roadmap. If MS’s empty promises are anything to go by, they would be better off without the map. I see this stated over and over in many places, and I wonder if MS’s Reality Distortion Field is so much better than Jobs’ that people don’t even realize it is there?

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