Steve Jobs’ obsession with secrecy and the “big-bang”

Tue, Dec 8, 2009


One of the hallmarks of Apple since Steve Jobs returned in 1997 has been the company’s almost laser like focus on product secrecy.  Whereas most companies routinely hold press conferences as a means to hype up a new product that won’t hit stores for another 6 months, Apple not only keeps its product details under lock and key, it also won’t hesitate to initiate legal action against websites that reveal undisclosed information.

Steve Jobs is a master showman, and it’s easy to see how keeping Apple’s upcoming products veiled in secrecy helps adds an intangible aura of excitement and fascination to a product when finally introduced. The iPhone, for example, blew people away not only because of what it was capable of, but also because many of its features came a complete surprise to even the most well-informed of Apple bloggers.  Also, revealing upcoming products that are still under development is a risky proposition as a lot can change between the time of an announcement and the expected ship date.  As an example, look no further than the last minute technical glitches that affected the planned camera in the Pod Touch.  Essentially, keeping product details from the public eye not only ramps up excitement, but also serves to prevent disappointment when consumer expectations inevitably spiral out of control

With that said, a 2003 book chronicling the development of the Segway provides some fascinating insight into Jobs’ mindset when it comes to introducing a product to the public for the very first time.  The book, titled Code Name Ginger: The Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen’s Quest to Invent a New World, details a 2001 meeting between Segway CEO Tim Adams, Segway inventor Dean Kamen, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and of course, Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

After lambasting the Segway for what Jobs described as having an un-innovative and inelegant design, the topic of conversation soon shifted towards the best way to introduce the functionally impressive new product to the public in light of expected resistance from the auto industry.

Bezos suggested starting slow, using one city or country as an experimental station. Once Ginger’s [Segway’s] benefits were clear, the company would have a wedge to pound into U.S. regulations. The perfect place to begin, thought Bezos, was Singapore. “You only have to convince one guy, the philosopher king, and then you have four million people to test it.”

… But Jobs was still shaking his head at Bezos’s suggestion. Because of the Internet, he said, slow was no longer possible. People would learn about Ginger in a flash of bits and bytes, and would want one now. So a small launch in a foreign place was foolish, because if the machine was unavailable in the United States, the company would blow its chance for $100 million of free publicity in its biggest market.

“If you show this to Hennessy,” Jobs said to Doerr, referring to John L. Hennessy, president of Stanford University and a world-class engineer, “he’ll shit in his pants.” Evidently Hennessy did that more readily than Jobs did. “And if you offer to give him a hundred of them if he’ll run a safety study and a usage study, that’s a done deal in ten minutes,” continued Jobs. “You do that at ten colleges and maybe at Disney, so people can see them but not buy them.”

But he warned that even this sort of slow launch was filled with dangers. If one stupid kid at Stanford hurt himself using a Ginger and then announced online that the machine sucked, the company was sunk, because there was no way to control that or counter it if people couldn’t ride one for themselves. With a big fast launch, on the other hand, a few malcontents wouldn’t be heard above the general hoopla. “I understand the appeal of a slow burn,” he concluded, “but personally I’m a big-bang guy.

The above passage highlights Jobs’ understanding that creating demand for a product not yet on out on the market brings more bad than good.  While this may seem like an obvious precept, it’s a concept that most large tech companies still haven’t grasped.  Just take a look at all the promises we’ve heard about how great the next version of Windows Mobile will be, and more recently, Michael Arrington’s ridiculous attempt to create a $200 “crunchpad” tablet.  For Jobs, though, it’s all about the “big-bang” and the big reveal that evokes gasps of astonishment and awe from an audience of eager onlookers staring in amazement at a product they had never before contemplated.

Product secrecy is obviously not ideal for your everyday Apple fan.  After all, the Apple blogosphere goes into a tizzy everytime an “informed source” drops the tiniest piece of information about Apple’s rumored tablet.  And in the end, this self-perpetuating hype only serves to generate more interest for a product that potentially may never see the light of day.  That’s a type of marketing buzz that you simply can’t buy, and something Jobs has understood for years.


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