Loose lips sink ships: Why has Tim Cook’s Apple sprung a leak?

Loose lips sink ships: Why has Tim Cook's Apple sprung a leak?
apple september 12 announements

Welp, the iPhone 5 is here. And, as feared, not a thing about the device was a surprise. Not the screen size. Not the processor. Not the design. Not the name. Not the release date. Not even the freakin’ headphones. We saw all of these details before, in the months leading up to today’s big announcement. In other words, everything about the iPhone 5 leaked, snatching away Apple’s long-held ability to control the message about its own products — a skillful secrecy that has defined the company for the past decade and helped make it such an astounding success.

None of this is to say that the iPhone 5 is a disappointment, nor lacking in any way. If you like the Apple ecosystem, then the iPhone 5 is great, probably the best phone on the market. Nor do I mean that Apple needs to blow our minds with every product — that’s just not how technological innovation works. Yes, the iPhone was groundbreaking in 2007. And the iPad set fire to the tablet form factor, which wallowed in obscurity and uselessness for a decade before receiving an incendiary dose of the Apple magic.

No — what I’m talking about here is the value of secrecy, and what it means to no longer have the ability or will to keep a secret.

At the D10 Conference in May, Apple CEO Tim Cook famously stated that Apple would “double down on secrecy on products.” But if this year’s iPhone rumor season is anything more than a fluke, it would appear that Cook has either decided to scrap that plan altogether, or fundamentally failed the mission.

It is entirely possible that, with the late Steve Jobs no longer in control, Cook decided to lift the iron curtain that has long surrounded Apple for strategic purposes. Some have suggested that, because the new iPhone now has an entirely different dock connector, Apple decided to leak the information in the press as a thinly veiled heads up to third-party accessory makers whose business would be monumentally impacted by the change. But why not simply share this information directly, and demand the same level of secrecy as Apple has historically required? Hasn’t Tim Cook ever heard of a non-disclosure agreement?

The more viable conclusion is that Apple has lost its ability to keep a secret. Why is that?

One theory is that Tim Cook is simply not as feared by Apple’s suppliers as Jobs was. Jobs is infamous for his brutal inflexibility, with employees and business partners alike. Cook, by contrast, is reportedly not nearly as frightening a leader. His wrath not as wrathful. His iron fist a bit rubbery.

Of course, it may simply be that Apple has grown too large for secrecy to remain a viable option. As of 2011, Apple listed (pdf) more than 150 companies in its supply chain. Perhaps this year it reached a breaking point: the list simply grew too long to stay in one solid piece. And out of the cracks flowed the company’s secrets.

Maybe. But I find it difficult to dismiss Cook’s role in it. For whatever reason, Apple’s relationship with its suppliers has drastically changed during his tenure. Leaks of iPhone 5 components were constant and nearly systematic. Nearly every week, for months on end, new tidbits about the device made their way onto the Web. Not just blurry shots of nearly unrecognizable prototypes as we occasionally saw during Jobs’ reign, but full videos of people showing off what we now know to be authentic iPhone 5 components.

Have Foxconn leaders sensed Apple’s new, less-dangerous demeanor, and allowed the many iPhone components to make their to leak into the public for their own purposes? Or perhaps it was LG Display, or Japan Display, where the iPhone 5 screens are made, which saw the weakness and let down its guard?

It’s impossible for me to say where exactly the leaks came from, or whether there was a single source or many. What I can say, however, is that if this is Tim Cook doubling down on Apple’s secrecy, then he just lost that hand.