Apple Has Trouble Keeping Secrets

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook took the stage at the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco yesterday.

Apple’s Tim Cook, chief executive officer of a company long known for its hush-hush culture, said last month he was placing an even greater emphasis on secrecy when it comes to its products.

“We’re going to double down on secrecy,” Cook said at the D10 conference.

There was little evidence of that at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference yesterday, the first one that Cook has led since becoming the full-time CEO. Readers of news websites and Apple fan blogs knew ahead of time much of what was announced at the keynote.

At the event, Apple unveiled MacBook Pro computers that are thinner, faster and have high-definition screens. Both the blog 9to5Mac and Bloomberg News reported that about a month ago. Apple showed a new photo-sharing service called Shared Photo Streams that iCloud users can flip through and comment on. The Wall Street Journal reported that nearly a month ago.

The new mapping application with 3-D flyovers and turn-by-turn navigation surfaced a month ago on 9to5Mac. That site also broke news of other iOS features such as a Do-Not-Disturb mode for alerts, new Web browser features, an app for tickets and loyalty cards, Siri on the iPad, and voice dictation for the Mac. Facebook-sharing features in the new operating system were reported by TechCrunch about a week ago. Also, Bloomberg first reported last week that Apple would add support for China-based search engine Baidu.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some of the popular Apple blogs did make a couple of overzealous predictions that didn’t pan out: a television set and an Apple TV app store. They also failed to scoop Apple on a few minor items, such as a function for pull-to-refresh e-mail, Siri buttons in cars and a mode to remotely set phones as lost to encourage good Samaritans to return them.

One analyst, Kulbinder Garcha of Credit Suisse, cautioned in an interview on Bloomberg TV that we shouldn’t expect a TV or any big surprises. He was right.

To be fair, secrecy was an issue before Cook officially took the helm. At last year’s developers conference, Steve Jobs went on stage to announce iCloud and iTunes Match — except reporters had already beaten him to it. When Apple was expanding its iPhone carrier partnerships to Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel, people read about it first in the newspapers. And who can forget the iPhone 4 prototype that was photographed from practically every imaginable angle by the technology blog Gizmodo before Jobs was ready to show it in 2010.

“Now, stop me if you’ve already seen this,” Jobs joked when the news conference finally took place.

Apple has a long history of secrecy. When Jobs returned to the company in 1997, he arranged to have employees who forward company e-mails to outsiders fired. In 2005, Apple sued Nicholas Ciarelli, then a 19-year-old Harvard University student running the website Think Secret, for revealing details about the company’s unreleased products.

“When Apple launches a product, if it’s been a secret up until the launch, the amount of press and coverage and buzz that you get is hugely valuable,” Fortune quoted former Apple marketing executive Bob Borchers as saying. “It’s worth millions of dollars.”

But keeping a secret is easy when nobody is looking. Apple, now by far the world’s most valuable company, has a lot of people looking to expose what it’s working on.

And that’s no secret.

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