By Leander Kahney
Mar, 06, 2007
A judge ordered Apple last January to pay the $700,000 legal fees of two
websites that reported on an unreleased product code-named "Asteroid."
Apple had sued the sites seeking the identities of leakers within its
ranks, but lost the case.
I was talking recently with an ex-Apple staffer who worked high up at
the company for many years, often closely with CEO Steve Jobs.
The programmer, who asked not to be named, was convinced the Asteroid
product was invented, a figment of Jobs' imagination dreamed up to find
the source of leaks -- the old "canary trap."
It's an espionage trick used to find the source of a leak: Feed each
person in the organization a slightly different piece of information,
and see who sings. The name comes from the novels of Tom Clancy; British
spies called the tactic a "barium meal," after a drink given before
stomach X-rays to illuminate the digestive system.
"That's how devious they are," the programmer said. "They wouldn't do it
with a real product. There's too many details and too many legitimate
ways information could leak out. But with a phony product, Steve knows
what information went where. The proof is that the product hasn't come
out -- and still hasn't."
At first I thought this was plausible -- Jobs certainly seems capable of
it -- but think about it for a second.
If Jobs was setting a canary trap, why would he need to sue the outlets
of his misinformation? If it were a trap, the publication of any
information he'd planted would be all he needed. Going on to sue the
publications is an unnecessary step. (Unless he were trying to cover up
the canary trap -- but this is too devious even for a spy novel).
Canary traps are widely used to uncover industrial espionage. A private
investigator once told me about a Silicon Valley company in the mid-'80s
that had a problem losing key customers to the competition. The
investigator had several lists of customers made up, each sprinkled with
bogus phone numbers. Different lists were given to different people. The
investigator just waited to see which of the phony phone lines he'd set
up began ringing.
Recently, it seems to have become common knowledge that Jobs plays these
kind of espionage games. Recent stories about how the iPhone was kept
secret mentioned tactics like nondisclosure agreements, misinformation
and phony prototypes. These stories were much discussed on blogs,
Slashdot and Digg.
It's true that Jobs is very secretive -- but he certainly doesn't play
devious spy games.
Here's how Jobs keeps secrets. Like every company in the Valley, Apple
uses nondisclosure agreements and code names. There's no point
telegraphing to the competition what you're up to if you don't have to.
Jobs also keeps information on a need-to-know basis. Different product
groups are told only what they must know to finish their parts of the
product. It's a classic cell structure, like a spy organization. The
executive team members are the only ones who know the big picture.
Take the iPod name. The only department in Apple that knew the name of
the iPod ahead of its unveiling was the graphics department, because it
designed the product packaging and advertising materials. Everyone else
referred to its code name, "Dulcimer."
And then there are the rumors of hardware prototypes disguised in big
polycarbonate boxes to hide their final shape. One ex-Apple executive
told me that the hardware is put in big boxes to make it easy to debug,
just like a Radio Shack project box. It doesn't hurt that no one can see
what the final product will look like -- especially when prototypes are
shipped to outside partners for testing or development -- but that's not
their primary purpose.
Some of Apple's secrecy measures get a little extreme. When Jobs hired
Ron Johnson from Target to head up Apple's retail effort, he asked him
to use an alias for several months lest anyone get wind the Mac maker
was working on retail stores. Johnson was listed on Apple's phone
directory under a false name, which he used to check in to hotels.
Apple's head of marketing, Phil Schiller, said he's not allowed to tell
his wife or kids what he's working on. His teenage son, an avid iPod
fan, was desperate to know what his dad was cooking up at work, but
daddy had to keep his trap shut because he might get canned.
Even Jobs himself is subject to his own strictures: He took an iPod
hi-fi boombox home for testing, but kept it covered with a black cloth.
And he listened to it only when no one else was around.
Why is Apple so secretive? Many think it's a quirk of Jobs' control
freakery, but it's simply good business and good marketing.
Jobs makes millions of dollars in free advertising every time he steps
onto a stage to reveal a new product. It's called "event marketing," and
he learned it from his marketing mentor, John Sculley, who Jobs
recruited to be Apple's CEO in 1983.
Sculley made product announcements an event, a piece of theater, and the
press happily rolled the TV crews to cover it. And since the unveiling
of the original Mac in 1984, Jobs has used the same strategy.
If everyone knows what the product is ahead of time, it's not news. And
that's why Jobs keeps his million-dollar secrets.
Leander Kahney is managing editor at Wired News and the author of two
books about technology culture: The Cult of Mac and The Cult of IPod. He
contributes to the Cult of Mac blog.
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