If there's one enduring lesson I took away from my late-night argument with Steve Jobs, it's that Apple's relationship with the public is undergoing a quiet revolution. Are we about to see a new, more open Apple?
"Revolution" is a strong word; in fact, it's the term that pissed me off enough to send an alcohol-infused email to Apple CEO Jobs, after the company used it to describe the iPad in a TV commercial.
But it describes Apple's PR shift well. This is the most notoriously secretive company in Silicon Valley, one that has traditionally communicated with the world through meticulously stage-managed launch events, press releases, the occasional short written statement and, less frequently, conversations with a small circle of carefully-chosen journalists, often off the record. The computer company is known for ruthlessly hunting down and punishing people who try to break from this tightly-controlled system, even, sometimes, when said people don't even work for the company.
And yet today Apple might be the most accessible big tech company around. Not by the traditional measure of how the still-tight-lipped press office works, of course. But by the new measures of social media and Web-based communication.
Jobs, for one, is responding to emails from random members of the public. And not just us; including my back-and-forth with the Apple co-founder, there have been at least four well-publicized emails from Jobs to random strangers in just over a month, ranging from a defense of Apple's developer policies to a confirmation the iPad will be improved to offer printing to "Are you nuts?," which was Jobs' retort to a Swiss user who thought Apple was misleading everyone about the international debut of the iPad.
Jobs had been getting warmed up to his recent email burst in the prior months, when his direct emails included messages about whether the iPad would tether and a promise to fix broken trackpads. Emailing Jobs directly also helped users recover a stolen iPhone and reverse Apple's rejection of a live-streaming app for iPhone, in both cases apparently due to Jobs' intervention. For more, there's an entire blog devoted to Jobs' emails here.
Then there are Jobs' essays. The CEO seems to have made a habit of issuing periodic direct—and, key point here, lengthy—essays to the public. First it was "Thoughts on Music," 1,882 words explaining Apple's complicated position on copy-protecting music files in the iTunes store. Then last month Jobs issued "Thoughts on Flash," 28 paragraphs about why Apple opposed allowing Flash near the iPhone, whether through a Web plug-in or via native apps that had been originally written in Flash and then cross-compiled.
If you're still not convinced Jobs is open, consider this: The CEO has been held up as a more accessible tech leader than Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. And Zuckerberg runs a social network, ostensibly all about sharing! Writing about the controversy over Zuckerberg rolling back user privacy protections, VentureBeat's Kim-Mai Cutler suggested Zuck think more like Jobs:
Facebook's moves can appear disingenuous, even if they're not... So the company should just be frank and that message should come from the top.
Mark should write a memo like the one Steve Jobs wrote explaining Apple's deep aversion to Adobe's Flash.
And when entrepreneur Jason Calacanis warned a prominent tech executive that a competing CEO would "slit your throat," he wasn't referring to Jobs, he was referring to Zuckerberg.
Going more open is out of character for Jobs, a notoriously secretive boss, by all account obsessed with every detail of controlling his company, especially the flow of information.
But consider that Jobs, as he is no doubt acutely aware these days, won't be CEO of Apple forever. He has a legacy to consider. And it's become increasingly clear that a policy of total info-control is untenable as more and more people publish to the Web, whether through Twitter, personal websites or simply comments in online forums. It was the blogs, especially the rumor sites, who were first to pierce the veil. But the pace of Apple leakage has only quickened, with photos of new Apple products popping up everywhere from obscure message boards in Asia to polished gadget websites.
Which is why the highly publicized battle between Gizmodo and Apple might actually offer an explanation for why Apple is becoming more open, rather than being evidence against the trend. After our sibling Gawker Media website obtained a prototype iPhone that had been left in a bar, Apple complained to the local police, which raided the home of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen. We're obviously biased observers, but there's clearly been a backlash against Apple over the raid; Jon Stewart famously called Apple executives "Appholes" on his Daily Show and a number of civil liberties organizations have objected publicly.
Whether Apple backs down in the specific case of Gizmodo, it has to be clear to the company that the blog's leak of the new iPhone was not a freak occurrence; in fact more pictures of the same unreleased phone surfaced in Vietnam. As we wrote last month, the leak of the new iPhone was a clear signal to the company that it could no longer keep a hermetic seal on the company—that seal had been broken using Apple's own technologies. Anil Dash, the tech exec and blogger, made a similar point all the way back in September in an essay called "Secrecy Does Not Scale," which came out amid the hubub over Apple blocking Google Voice.
By now, Apple has to know that, having been instrumental in opening up the world's information through digital technology, it has no real choice but to open up itself. That's not something Jobs can afford to be in denial about if he's to remain such a remarkably effective CEO. And you know what? It starting to sound like he's not in denial at all.