Apple has sprung a leak: scoops about iPhone 5 were right on

An unprecedented number of product features were first debuted in gadget blogs rather than at Apple's media event. What happened to the company's once storied secrecy?

(Credit: Apple)

In the past, Apple was one of the most security-conscious companies in Silicon Valley. Company managers protected the content of upcoming media events as though they were guarding state secrets. If leaks occurred, they were rare, and feathers in the caps of the reporters who bagged them.

Today, all sorts of blogs can boast that they scooped the Apple event. Go down the list of Apple's new products or services and nearly all leaked out weeks or months ago.

New ear buds, check. A new dock connector, check. The new iPhone, the marquee product that Apple fans salivate over, check. Leading up to today's Apple media event was a steady stream of leaked photos of the iPhone 5, most of which turned out to be accurate.

Like most companies, Apple wants to safeguard its trade secrets from competitors. But the company also understands that one of the keys to building excitement around product releases is to ratchet up anticipation and create an expectation in consumers that they're going to be wowed by something new.

If this event was unprecedented in any way, it was that at no other time in Apple's history have so many of the company's upcoming offerings been unveiled by those other than Apple. For weeks, CNET's Apple reporter, Josh Lowensohn, has said that all of the early reports were draining the anticipation out of the iPhone 5 debut.

Many of the reviews of yesterday's show said that Apple failed to deliver pizzazz. Did the leaks contribute to the disappointment? It's hard to imagine that if news about Apple's upcoming products continued to be delivered ahead of these events, they wouldn't matter as much or still be effective marketing tools.

As for the reason for the leaks, the first place to look is at the CEO. There's little to indicate that Tim Cook is anywhere near as zealous about locking down Apple's secrets as Jobs. Yes, Cook said recently that Apple will "double down" on security, but Jobs was said to obsess about it.

Recall that Apple once sued a teenage blogger for breaking news about Apple products. Remember Jobs' angry reaction in 2010 to the iPhone prototype lost in a German brew pub and eventually sold to Gizmodo? The site returned the phone, but Apple called the cops and the home of one of Gizmodo's editors was raided. When asked about the matter, which he described as an attempt by Gizmodo to extort Apple, Jobs said that he was advised to let the matter slide.

"I'd rather quit," Jobs declared.

When Jobs was running Apple, there were reports of strict security protocols and clandestine meetings in zoned-off buildings. Former cops were dispatched to hunt down leaks, and there were numerous stories about the ever-present threat of termination for employees who couldn't keep their mouths shut.

Even with all of that, Apple saw several major breaches of security while Jobs was still at the helm, including the iPhone prototype that was lost in the brew pub. During Jobs' tenure, Apple also lost a second unreleased handheld in a San Francisco tequila bar in July 2011, and an executive at one of Apple's suppliers was arrested on charges that he had supplied unreleased data about the iPhone and iPad to investors. They wanted to trade illegally on the insider information.

Brian Tong, a CNET senior editor and on-air personality, said today that he suspects that Apple has far too many suppliers now, and that demand for information about the company's products is too great for managers to keep anything secret.

He's probably right. It also might be wise to consider the cost and risks of creating a Kremlin-like atmosphere at a consumer-electronics company.

In July 2011, Apple security personnel went looking for the prototype phone that went missing in a tequila bar. They tracked the device electronically to the home of a San Francisco man. With police standing by, the Apple employees searched the man's home, car and computer. Some of the people who were in the home at the time said that they felt pressured to agree to the search and claimed that they were threatened with deportation if they didn't cooperate.

To many people, the search was extreme, and Apple had crossed the line. Maybe, for the long term, Apple is better off not making security too much of a priority.

Apple isn't the CIA. These really aren't state secrets. The target of the prototype search by Apple's security unit that day in San Francisco was, after all, just a phone.


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