Apple's NDA Disclosed: Why You Won't See The iPhone 5 Until Tim Cook's Ready

An insider offers new details about the ironclad security around Apple prototypes: private jets, windowless rooms, amorphous storage cases padlocked to tables whose wood grain signatures are photographed—and much more.

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]

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  • Additude

    This whimsical tale of secrecy is all very well, but how do Apple solve the logistical nightmare of production and manufacture. I can't imagine it would be very difficult to keep any prototypes under lock and key, but they need to put the products (iPad, iPhone etc.) into production days if not weeks before release. This could include various parties. Foxconn apparently work with Apple closely, but what about the rest. ie. Korean manufacturers, production line etc. How do you keep them quiet? Hmmm....

  • jonthebeef

    Sounds consistent with what I heard from one of the developers of the Times iPad app. To begin with, they could only go into the room to test what they were building. Later on, devices were given to the team.

  • Daniel

    The only commodity left these days is new information. Apple are the smartest company in the world, simply because they dont give up this commodity ahead of time and allow anything to dilute their message. I applaud their efforts, it obviously pays off come launch day.

  • Lora Kolodny

    Do you think stealth generally works for other businesses at this extreme? 

  • Rob Day

    You should see the steps Chiat Day has to go through to keep the same secrecy!  They basically have an Apple Bunker over there, and this is for the ads :)

  • George Bush

    And I say "More power to them!"
    It's clowns who leak things like this who end up helping competitors' efforts at closely initiating the product before it's even released. It hasn't even had the chance to hit the market yet! Besides, it's their product so they have a right to be able to do as they please with it.
    Hearing about the iPhone 4 from stupid Gizmodo was like hearing about a gift your friend was going to surprise you with (from a disinterested second-hand source) before they were actually able to give it to you.
    Btw, the headline is quite misleading since you didn't reveal anything to do with Apple's actual NDA.

  • Nari Soundarrajan

    awwww how sweeeet.. "hearing about a gift your friends was going to surprise.."  awwww

    Apple Inc = Friend
    new iphone = gift.
    Cost = priceless , but charge it to Visa.

    There is Mastercard for everything else. :P