Saturday, October 14, 2006

Should Apple blog?

Daniel Jalkut mentions a few worthy blogs on his own, including Microsoft's official Office for Mac Team blog, personal blogs by two of that team's members, Google's Mac Blog, and Apple's infamous Masked Blogger.

He's going somewhere with these. He says Microsoft is "kicking Apple’s butt in terms of public exposure." He thinks the Masked Blog is a proof of "Apple’s idiotic blog-stifling policies," and the Google blog is a "'cooler than Apple' corporate blogging entity."

I understand if Daniel would like to read blogs by Apple employees, either personal ones, or perhaps team blogs on the latest goings-on of some particular projects. Apple is very picky about the way it communicates with the public. Major announcements are invariably delivered by Steve Jobs at press events. Whatever else Apple wants to tell the world will be communicated in the form of press releases. It's very rare to find anything beyond the already-stated official position anywhere else, be it interviews or conferences or any other forums. Apple's spokespersons sometimes seem to have one task to perform only: to decline to comment on any given issue. Rumors, leaks and any unauthorized disclosures are frowned upon, or even taken to court.

So where would blogging fit in this picture?

I was excited when Safari/WebKit developer David Hyatt started to publish his "Surfing Safari" weblog (moved about eighteen times, currently accessible here), where he started discussing a lot of the issues concerning his work and web standards in general. Of course, he never gave away anything that he wasn't supposed to, and it was nice to get some insight into a very important part of the Mac experience: the default browser, one that Apple developed no less.

So where are all the other blogs? How about an iCal, an iLife, or iWork blog, or a general Mac OS X blog? And an iMac or Mac Pro blog? How about blogs for the iPod, AppleCare, .Mac, and so on?

Well... I really don't see what anyone could post in those blogs, really, apart from truly uninteresting stuff. Any mention of upcoming products or features would be a big no-no. Not just that: any information from which any hint of a future direction might be distilled would need to remain unblogged. And unlike Surfing Safari, where the authors discuss an open-source framework and other general web issues, these other hypothetical blogs would have no subject to blog on.

Apple is a very secretive company. A vast majority of its products are announced the day they ship, or a couple of months ahead at the very most. When Apple announces a product, it means that it's ready. Apple might have worked on it for over a year, gone back to the drawing board several times, considered then dropped several features, agonized over all the specifications and the pricing, and worked excruciatingly hard on the design and manufacturing process. But now it's ready. What we get to see is the end result.

Of course, there are a few exceptions. Operating system upgrades are dealt with in a slightly different fashion, involving developers (and, in a limited way, also the public) six to nine months ahead. But with the hardware or paid software offerings, Apple usually announces when it ships. In fact, with the single exception of iTV, Apple never discusses any hardware products in its pipeline. And iTV had to be announced for Apple's movie download service to make a bit more sense.

Contrast that with Microsoft's constant blabbering about its upcoming products. Does it really help Zune that the whole world is discussing all of its features, bugs, color schemes, marketing blunders and limitations? Zune is still months away from going on sale, yet the world has basically already reached a consensus that it won't be an iPod killer.

Announcing something that you're still working on might signal that you're eliciting feedback or discussion. And Apple's lack of doing that suggests that the company is confident in its ability to design products, without constantly turning to the public and asking, "Is it going to be okay? Or shall I change something?"

Apple also tries to fend off copycat competitors by not pre-announcing its products. Just think about Leopard's still unannounced 'top secret' features.

Apple's secrecy has spawned a cottage industry of rumormongering. Apple and Mac rumor sites run stories not only based on purported leaks by Apple insiders, but also on Apple's patent filings and even job adverts. If an Apple employee were to write a blog discussing just about any facet of his or her work at Apple, those blog posts would be scrutinized by hundreds of people associated with a dozen of such websites, trying to gather even the tiniest bit of information suggesting an upcoming Apple release. For example, Apple developer Blake Seely's mere mention on his personal blog that he got transferred to the Aperture team caused considerable impact on the rumors community, fueling the on-going speculation on the future of Aperture.

If Apple allowed its employees to blog on company matters, it would also need to set up a censorship division pre-approving any and all blog posts. Not that employees would deliberately disclose classified information, but perhaps they might not always appreciate how a seemingly innocent little detail could open up a whole can of worms.

Unless Apple wants to stop spoon-feeding its official position on all relevant matters to the press, and wants to lose a lot of its control on what gets out from inside its walls, it couldn't easily just start sanctioning employee blogs.

But how relevant would these blogs be anyway? If they couldn't talk about future directions or even too much of the current or recent events, really, what purpose would they serve? They would perhaps put names or faces to products and teams... Well, except that Apple doesn't encourage that either. Apple stopped crediting its engineers by name in any of its products' About boxes, perhaps in order to thwart headhunters or competition in their attempts to get hold of its key people. And really, can you blame Apple when its key weapon against the Microsoft juggernaut is delivering innovation, which does require secrecy?

So I think Apple's authorized blogs could do nothing other than re-hash Apple's PR, and provide some decidedly uninteresting details. Posts could go on like this:

So I walked out of my office on the [CENSORED] floor, said hi to Karen* in next door's office, and talked to her briefly on how hard it was to implement the [CENSORED] functionality in [CENSORED]. She agreed, and we went on discussing a similar problem in [CENSORED] over lunch. The [CENSORED] was delicious, by the way.

Who wouldn't just love to read such a blog?

One comment on the Masked Blogger's site (which the Blogger themself embraces) blows the whole question of Apple employee blogs ridiculously out of proportion:
"Here’s a question for Apple’s PR: what happens when only anonymous employees can blog? Hint: your PR will be controlled by anonymous people!"
This is wishful thinking. Apple still controls its PR, and it will take some serious unauthorized blogging to defeat that.

I really don't think blogging could add too much to Apple's PR efforts. The only thing that Apple could easily achive on the blogs front would be renaming Apple's newsletters and public releases as "Apple Blog entries," but that wouldn't do much. So why bother?

If you think there are areas where Apple could be more communicative and still maintain its secrecy, please let me know. Perhaps developer resources could be a good candidate, though Apple probably has its reasons to enforce some secrecy there as well, since that's where most of the innovation starts.

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