We're just days away from Apple's iPhone 5 event, and for the past few weeks (er, months rather), the rumor mill has kicked into high gear. But most stories on Apple's latest game changer derive from speculation or shoddy secondhand sources, or, most enticing, glamour shots of the press invite.
Compare that to Amazon, whose Kindle Fire tablet was pretty much unveiled by the media before CEO Jeff Bezos even took the stage Wednesday. Not in Apple's world, where the company springs fewer leaks than a military grade catheter. Steve Jobs considers extreme secrecy a core principle of both Apple's business and marketing strategy: The more the public is kept in the dark, feeding off the seemingly limitless Apple-rumor blogs and rags, the more consumers are likely to lust after Apple's gizmos. With rare exception (say, a prototype lost in a bar) does a new product come to new light before Jobs's on-stage announcements—we can safely assume the same will remain true throughout the Tim Cook era. Just how does Apple keep such a tight lid on all of its unreleased products?
Fast Company spoke to an executive who was one of the first people outside of Apple to gain access to a first-gen iPad before the tablet had ever been unveiled. The exec declined to turn over Apple's infamous non-disclosure agreement (NDA), considering it too much of a business risk. And while a few details of the NDA leaked last year, the executive provided us with a much clearer and very telling picture of the great lengths Apple will go through to make sure you never see the iPhone 5 before Tim Cook wants you to see it.
First off, Apple would only allow a select few from this executive's company to know the company was in possession of an iPad—not even the company's CEO knew. The select few included a few developers, and Apple required a list of their names and Social Security numbers. These employees were of course forbidden to talk about the device—to tell anyone what it looked like or that the company had the device on hand.
To further safeguard this process, Apple required the device be kept in a window-less or blacked-out room, which had to be fitted with a new lock that only two keys could open. Apple held on to one key; the executive to the other.
The iPad itself was then flown out to the company via private plane. Once it arrived, even the revealed product was encased in a clunky outer shell—the company exec describes it to me as a "black plastic" case, which made it moot to snap any photos of the device. What's more, Apple also padlocked the case to a desk within the room. Apple then took pictures of the device padlocked to the desk, making sure to capture the table's wood grain. That way if any pictures did leak, Apple could trace the images back to the particular desk and wood grain they were taken on, and thus trace the leaks to the company in its possession.
The executive said it was incredibly difficult to design an app for a product that couldn't be shown to or tested with customers—to design an app for a product that had never really been seen by anyone outside Apple in its natural form and shape. But he added that no other company could likely get away with such secrecy.
"Only Apple," the executive joked.
[Image: Flickr user CJ Schmit]